Health workers spray germ-killing liquid into the
Health workers spray germ-killing liquid into the bodies of residents who will enter urban areas in Palu, Central Sulawesi Province, Indonesia. (Getty)
  • The coronavirus' death rate - a calculation of deaths out of total confirmed cases - varies by place and population.
  • Eight countries currently have death rates higher than 10%, while others are lower than 1%.
  • South Africa currently has a death rate of below 2%.
  • Factors like a population's average age, a country's testing capacity, and government responses can influence the death rate.
  • Experts think the true death rate may be as low as 1% if everybody were tested, but that's still far deadlier than the flu.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As countries loosen coronavirus restrictions and businesses reopen, a crucial question informs how governments move forward: Just how deadly is COVID-19?

The most straightforward answer may seem to be the "case fatality rate," a calculation of the number of known deaths out of the total number of confirmed cases. But it doesn't tell the full story.

Globally, that death rate was 6.7% as of Wednesday, according to the World Health Organisation; it has hovered around 7% since mid-April. South Africa's death rate is just below 2% (407 deaths out of  21,343 cases)

In March, the global death rate was around 3.4%. But that doesn't necessarily mean the virus has changed, since death-rate calculations depend on how many cases are confirmed by tests. The high global death rate could point to coronavirus testing limitations across the globe.

"There is no way that we record all the cases, though we probably record most of the deaths," John Edmunds, a professor of infectious-disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, told Business Insider in an email. "[Case fatality rates] are not very good measures, as they are more a measure of how much testing and case finding you do."

In general, the more cases that are included in the data - including people with mild or no symptoms - the lower the death rate.

Plus, new deaths being documented now are generally people who fell ill three to four weeks ago - when many countries' outbreaks were peaking. Because the disease progresses over a period of weeks, and because these numbers are constantly changing, the rate is not static and will continue evolving. It is not a reflection of the likelihood that any given person will die if infected.

Why some countries have higher death rates

Eight countries have death rates higher than 10%: Belgium, France, Italy, Mexico, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK, according to a Johns Hopkins University database. Other places like Singapore, which has a robust testing programme, have reported rates as low as 0.1%.

A number of factors can drive death rates up. Sweden, for example, never issued a mandatory lockdown, instead asking its citizens to voluntarily maintain social distance. Experts warned early on that this strategy could lead to more death. The virus might also be reaching more elderly people there, who are more susceptible to severe illness.

High death rates could also be the result of limited testing capacity. Countries with scarce testing resources tend to prioritize the most severe cases for COVID-19 confirmation, leaving many people with mild or asymptomatic cases undetected, thus giving the appearance of an unusually high death rate. Sweden has only just expanded its testing to include those with mild symptoms.

South Africa has conducted 564,370 tests so far - around 10 out of 10,000 people. By end-April, the average among developed economies was around 22.

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