Excess deaths

A term used in public health that refers to the number of deaths above and beyond what is expected under ‘normal’ conditions (e.g. when there is no pandemic).

Excess deaths are measured as the difference between the total number of deaths from all causes during a specified time period, and the number of deaths during that same time period as a historical average. Excess mortality is a useful metric when public health professionals do not have adequate data on the number of deaths attributed to a certain disease. Excess mortality figures indicate the true burden of an epidemic including the indirect number of deaths.

Simply put, it’s a measure of the impact of a crisis when not all causes of death are known. For example, if 1000 people die in June in community X during epidemic Z, and the historical average number of deaths in that community for June is only 100, it is expected that the true burden of epidemic Z  would be very high. This burden, however, may include deaths from indirect causes, such as heart attacks and motor vehicle accident injuries which occurred because people were too afraid to seek medical care for their serious injuries during the epidemic, and not because of infection.

Identifying confirmed COVID-19 deaths is a challenge for journalists. Some governments may be open about the number of deaths, others less so. WHO has acknowledged that without testing all suspected cases, local healthcare providers, medical examiners and coroners will never know the actual deaths caused by COVID-19.

Several media outlets around the globe have been investigating the issue.

  • Reuters reporters in scrutinising data from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta’s city and parks department found that burials remained close to record highs in April. The data indicated there may have been many more deaths from COVID-19 in the city than were officially recorded.
  • According to the British Financial Times, an analysis of overall fatalities during the pandemic in 14 countries during March and April, found the death toll from COVID-19 was almost 60% higher than the officially reported statistics.





EpidemicCOVID-19Mortality rateWHO (World Health Organisation)