South Africa records 60% rise in excess deaths, suggesting high Covid-19 toll

By Jason Burke in Johannesburg

South Africa has recorded nearly 60% more natural deaths than expected in recent weeks, suggesting a much higher coronavirus-related death toll than officially reported, a study by a respected national research body has concluded.

With more than 10,000 cases being reported every day, South Africa is now the worst-affected country in Africa and among the top five in the world in terms of confirmed cases, with just under 400,000 infections reported to date, including 5,940 deaths.

“In the past weeks, the numbers have shown a relentless increase – by the second week of July, there were 59% more deaths from natural causes than would have been expected based on historical data,” the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) said in a statement.

Researchers at SAMRC, a government-funded but independent body, calculated that there had been 17,000 excess deaths in South Africa between the first week of May and mid-July, though they emphasised that these included those from conditions that might normally have been diagnosed and treated if it were not for the pandemic as well as those caused directly by Covid-19.

The new research will reinforce concerns that the impact of Covid-19 on Africa is dramatically underestimated in official figures.

The World Health Organization (WHO) voiced alarm on Monday at the spread of the disease in Africa, warning that South Africa’s surging numbers could be a “precursor” for outbreaks elsewhere.

“I am very concerned right now that we are beginning to see an acceleration of disease in Africa,” Michael Ryan, the director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, told reporters.

The WHO has consistently maintained that the spread of the disease on the continent is being accurately measured, though has admitted that the low rates of testing are a concern.

There are now more than 750,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Africa and 15,000 deaths, though several countries have refused to publish up to date or comprehensive figures and anecdotal evidence has long suggested much higher infection rates than officially reported.

South Africa’s initial response to the virus was widely praised. The president, Cyril Ramaphosa, implemented a tough lockdown at the end of March, when South Africa had only 400 recorded cases. The army enforced strict measures, shutting shops, banning alcohol and requiring people to stay at home.

But a surge in poverty and unemployment in a country that already had high levels of both spurred the government to lift restrictions well before the outbreak was fully under control. Rates of infection have soared since.

Ramaphosa said this month that scientists had predicted up to 50,000 deaths in South Africa, a figure that seems plausible following the SAMRC’s finding.

The president has repeatedly appeared on television to appeal to people to wear face coverings, adopt social distancing measures and wash their hands. But confidence in the government’s handling of the crisis has plummeted. There has been widespread criticism of decisions to allow the overcrowded minibus taxis that provide most public transport to function with minimal restrictions and religious services to be held, though with congregations of fewer than 50 people.

Zweli Mkhize, South Africa’s minister of health, said the rate of excess deaths calculated by the SAMRC was equivalent to that in India and Russia. There has also been scepticism about the death figures in those countries.

Mkhize was on a tour of the Eastern Cape province, where severe shortages of medical staff, oxygen and equipment have been widely reported amid allegations of corruption and mismanagement.

The current centre of the outbreak in South Africa is Gauteng, the country’s economic powerhouse and most populous province. The central business district of Johannesburg, the country’s commercial capital, has been badly hit, as has the satellite city of Soweto.

Authorities in Gauteng have been accused of failing to take advantage of the respite offered by the lengthy and strict lockdown in March and April.

The SAMRC is charged with conducting research on disease trends and identifying the main causes of deaths in the country.

Its research also highlighted the rapid decrease in unnatural deaths that coincided with the lockdown with its tight restrictions on the consumption of alcohol. This contributed to a fifth fewer deaths from unnatural causes, such as traffic collisions and murders, than expected.