Sudden surge of suspicious deaths
The number of deaths from coronavirus is a figure we've all be watching like hawks for months. In Australia it's 93, in the US - hardest hit by COVID-19 - it's 64,000, worldwide almost a quarter of a million.
But there's another number experts have urged us to look at, and it puts to bed the dodgy theory that the deaths caused by coronavirus would have happened anyway. That if the old and vulnerable hadn't died due to COVID-19, something else would have got them.
It's the figure for excess deaths. Those deaths that are above what would be expected at this time in any normal year.
It leads to some sobering reading. In the UK, in a single week last month, deaths were double compared to an average week with 10,000 more Brits passing away than usual.
One week in April saw New York City record an estimated 526 per cent year-on-year rise in fatalities.
Some recent weeks have been the most deadly in decades in many western countries. It's possible 122,00 extra deaths have occurred this year - and that's just by looking at a few nations.
Helpfully, national statistical agencies around the world spend lots of time and effort registering deaths. They then publish these averages so it's easy to see how one year's death rates fares against another.
Mostly one year is pretty consistent with the next but deaths can fluctuate month to month.
"Illness and deaths occur in predictable patterns. For example, deaths from respiratory diseases each year are at their highest during the winter and spring," Liverpool University researcher Marie McIntyre told website The Conversation.
"This historical data can tell us when we are having an abnormally bad year," she said.
It's fair to say 2020 has been one of those years, or at least March and April 2020 have.
Outside China, most countries were chugging away with a pretty standard number of deaths heading into March. Then deaths skyrocketed far above average.
In terms of deaths, it's very possible the UK could surpass Italy as Europe's most afflicted nation.
Statistics for England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Ireland report their figures separately) show 22,351 people died in the two British nations in the week ending April 17. In an average April week, about 10,500 people would do so.
"At this point in the year the UK usually sees a falls in the number of deaths caused by respiratory diseases - yet both respiratory and non-respiratory deaths have increased in April, in every region of England and Wales," said Ms McIntyre and her fellow researchers at Liverpool University.
DEATHS RATES IN MAJOR CITIES SOAR
UK-based newspaper the Financial Times looked at the total number of deaths of any cause in 15 countries and cities from the beginning of the year and compared that to the same period over the previous five years.
Again deaths tracked similarly to other years until March, and then shot up. It estimated 50 per cent more people have perished than usual amounting to 148,000 excess deaths across those countries alone.
In Italy, deaths were up by 90 per cent; in Spain by 72 per cent, Belgium 60 per cent, the Netherlands 52 per cent and England and Wales 52 per cent, where there was a hike of 27,000 deaths above the rolling average.
Countries that have fared better included Austria, Denmark and Portugal which saw rises of around 10 per cent or less in deaths. The FT did not look at Australian figures.
Denmark has recorded only 100 deaths above a normal start to the year. Given this is lower than its 452 COVID-19 deaths, common reasons for Danes to pass away may actually have fallen. Certainly, in California, the state has recorded fewer road deaths because people are heeding instructions to lockdown.
NOT ALL COVID-19 DEATHS PICKED UP
In a number of hard-hit regions, excess deaths are even starker. In London deaths have almost doubled in the first few months of 2020, in New York City they were up by 299 per cent and in Bergamo province in Italy, possibly even harder hit that nearby Milan, fatalities rose by 464 per cent.
In Jakarta, excess deaths were 15 times the official number of COVID-19 deaths.
That brings up another question. If excess deaths are higher than the average number of deaths plus those recorded as being caused by COVID-19, does that mean more people are dying of coronavirus than thought?
It was only this week that the UK began including deaths in nursing homes in its numbers. Its total death figure leapt to 27,000 which explained some of the gap between official COVID-19 deaths and excess mortality.
The US Centres for Disease Control (CDC) has also been crunching the numbers. Since January, the Government body has said the US has seen at least 66,000 excess deaths with 17,000 of these in New York City and a further 10,000 elsewhere in New York State.
Across the US as a whole, the week ending April 11 was the deadliest for years with 36 per cent more people dying than usual. In New York City that week, 6000 more residents passed away than a normal April week, a 526 per cent rise. Numbers have been falling since but the city is still well within excess territory.
New York hasn't seen numbers go above what would be considered "excessive" since January 2018 in the midst of particularity vicious flu season. Even then, the rise was only a modicum of what occurred in mid-April this year.
For the four weeks to April 11, deaths were up 50 per cent in the seven US states most affected, according to a report in the New York Times, and 325 per cent higher in NYC.
Those figures suggest almost 2000 deaths may be related to COVID-19 that haven't been recorded as such. This could be due to a lack of tests to confirm the virus' presence.
However, researchers in both the UK and US have sounded a note of caution that not all the excess deaths can be laid at the feet of COVID-19, at least not directly.
Some of the rise could be due to healthcare resources diverted from what became deemed non-essential care. A number of people may also have been hesitant to seek treatment during a pandemic.
One report showed that there was an increase in Americans dying from treatable illnesses, such as heart conditions, because they either avoiding visiting hospital or there was no capacity to treat them.
It may never be known if all the excess deaths were caused by COVID-19 or if the virus was present in the victim's system. But higher rates of testing should allow the number of deaths attributable to the disease to be more accuracy reported.
Originally published as Soaring death toll dispels virus theory