On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the COVID-19 outbreak COVID-19 a global pandemic. The spread of the virus led to unprecedented changes around the world as governments and public health officials sought to contain the spread of the virus.
“In the coming days and weeks, we expect the number of cases, the number of deaths and the number of countries affected to increase even further,” said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus when making the announcement in 2020.
Three years later, statistics show that deaths caused by or related to COVID-19 have significantly increased the rate of excess deaths worldwide. There have been more than 6.8 million deaths directly from COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University. But today the threat has been stifled by vaccination and weaker mutations.
Nevertheless, excess mortality rates in Europe have risen sharply in recent months. We’ll take a look at why.
What is excess mortality?
Excess mortality is the number of deaths in excess of what would be expected in a given period. It is measured by comparing the number of deaths during a given period (e.g. a year) with the average number of deaths during the same period in previous years.
“Mortality remains fairly stable over the years unless something happens,” said Dr. Quique Bassat, infectious diseases expert at ISGLOBAL Barcelona, told Euronews. “Deviations from expected mortality are very useful because they act as a warning sign that something might be happening.”
Analysis performed by Eurostat found that excess mortality rates across the European Union rose by 19 percent in December 2022, compared to the average number of deaths over the same period between 2016 and 2019.
So what does that mean in numbers? Accordingly EuroMOMOover 101,000 deaths were recorded in December 2022, compared to 109,000 in 2020 when SARS-COV-2 was widespread in Europe.
But not every death with COVID-19 is a death from COVID-19. Underlying health conditions aggravate pre-existing conditions in people, from cardiovascular to respiratory.
The excess mortality rate varied between EU Member States. In December 2022, Eastern European countries such as Bulgaria and Romania recorded significantly lower rates than the EU average at -6 percent and -5.5 percent respectively.
But countries like Germany, France, Austria and Ireland all topped the December 2022 average. Germany saw a staggering 37.3 percent increase in deaths that month.
“It is possible that the population now has weaker immunity to influenza compared to the years before COVID-19 because very few people have had influenza in the last two years due to social distancing and mask-wearing,” says Dmitry Kobak, research assistant at the University of Tübingen.
Overwhelmed Health Services
Other factors could also contribute to the increase in excess mortality rates in Europe. For example, the pandemic has disrupted healthcare systems and made it difficult for people to access healthcare for other conditions. This may have led to more deaths from non-COVID-related causes, such as heart disease or cancer.
“[Health] Healthcare systems are trying to catch up on the missed diagnoses and delayed treatments caused by the pandemic, especially when healthcare systems have been overwhelmed or simply understaffed. This contributes significantly to the current burden on healthcare systems,” said Dr. Jeffery Lazarus, head of the Health Systems Research Group at ISGlobal Barcelona, told Euronews.
What is clear is that the strain on national health systems from the pandemic has highlighted pre-existing strains on hospital and health workers. Many say they are still fighting.
Medical conditions are not the only contributing factor. The climate is playing an increasingly important role in people’s health. For example, the historic heatwave that shook Europe in the summer of 2022, when temperatures in Spain, Italy, France and the UK constantly reached 40 degrees: the intense drought on the continent resulted not only in droughts but also in deaths.
According to the WHO, more than 15,000 people died in Europe as a result of the heat.
“Typically, those most vulnerable to heatwaves are outdoor workers, such as those in agriculture and construction, as well as the elderly in society, who are often already in poor health,” Lazarus said.
Various weather extremes in the summer of 2022 hit the most vulnerable groups such as older people from heat stress, respiratory problems from polluted air and underlying cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases.
What can governments do to prevent future pandemics?
The elevated excess mortality rates we are currently seeing in Europe are therefore due to a number of factors.
As we begin to contemplate a post-pandemic era, governments are acutely aware that our health and freedom cannot be taken for granted. But what can you do?
“Governments need to be proactive, not reactive,” says Dr. Lazarus.
“They must follow evidence-based control measures such as improving indoor air quality and promoting the COVID-19 vaccine booster. Instead, they are attempting to turn the page of the pandemic, with the result that millions of Europeans have contracted COVID-19, or long COVID.”