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The latest data released by the South African Medical Research Council show that the country’s deadly second Covid-19 wave may finally be subsiding – but it’s still too early to tell, definitively.

The SAMRC measures excess deaths in South Africa, which are the total fatalities from natural causes compared with the expected death rate in a “normal” year. The SAMRC uses official death statistics, as well as estimates of deaths that may not be registered, to determine the total number of fatalities in SA.

In total, the SAMRC calculates that there were almost 126,000 “excess” deaths from natural causes since May (when these deaths first started to pick up) to 23 January 2021. More than 75% of these deaths were among people older than 60.

A “significant proportion” of excess deaths may be attributable to Covid-19, the SAMRC says. This suggests a massive undercounting of the official Covid death toll, which is currently around 42,000.

The SAMRC numbers show that deaths may have peaked in the second week of January – when “excess deaths” from natural causes hit 15,500. This far eclipsed the deadliest week in the first wave of the pandemic – 6,673 deaths at the end of July 2020.

In the third week of January 2021, excess deaths subsided to below 13,500.

This SAMRC graph shows that the downtrend in excess deaths also tracks a fall in the official Covid death rate:

Source: SAMRC

One of the compilers of the SAMRC report, University of Cape Town professor Tom Moultrie, noted on Twitter than the latest data may indicate that the peak in excess deaths has been passed – but that this will only be confirmed by next week's report.

Deaths from natural causes in the Eastern Cape have fallen for the third consecutive week, and the latest numbers show that deaths in the Western Cape may have peaked in the week to 2 January, followed by KwaZulu-Natal in the week to 16 January.

In Gauteng, the number of excess deaths in Johannesburg plateaued in the week to 23 January, while the rate decreased in Ekurhuleni and Tshwane.

“The extremely sharp increases in the number of natural deaths in Limpopo and Mpumalanga during December and January have turned,” the SAMRC found.

The only provinces that are still seeing climbing excess death rates are the Northern Cape, the North West and the Free State.

Compiled by Helena Wasserman

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