• Last year, the number of South Africans who died from unnatural causes - including murder, accidents, suicides and drownings - were lower than normal levels. It closely tracked the restrictions on alcohol sales during the pandemic. 
  • Unnatural deaths plummeted again in December and January after a ban on alcohol sales.
  • But there has been a sharp increase again in the first week of February.
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The latest data released by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) show a sharp slump in the number of South Africans who died from unnatural causes - including accidents, murders, suicides and drownings - in December and January.

The fall coincides with the ban on alcohol in South Africa, which was instituted on 28 December in an effort to flatten a deadly second Covid-19 wave.

Towards the end of January, the number of deaths from unnatural causes was far below the expected rate (orange line) under normal circumstances, and almost reaching only 600 a week, numbers last seen in May last year. 

Source; SAMRC

In the five weeks to the end of January 2021, 3,714 people died from unnatural causes - compared to 4,523 in the same period in 2020.  

But there's a sharp increase in the number of deaths from unnatural causes in the week to 7 February, which coincided with the relaxation of lockdown to allow restricted sale of alcohol and the shorter curfew hours, says the SAMRC. In that week, there were almost 1,000 deaths again - close to the "normal" rate for this time of year.

South Africa's unnatural death rate closely tracks the alcohol restrictions announced during the pandemic, giving ammunition to those in government who are considering adding new – and permanent – restrictions on the alcohol industry.

READ | Booze may be banned for 18-year-olds because of lessons learnt during Covid-19 prohibition

While deaths due to unnatural causes may have been lower or in line with the "normal" rates of dying from these circumstances over the past year, the latest SAMRC data show how Covid-19 exploded the rate of natural deaths.

Government's official death toll from Covid-19 is 47,100, but the SAMRC data - which include both officially recorded deaths as well as estimates of unregistered deaths - show "excess deaths", the number of deaths above the expected death rate in a “normal” year of almost 138,000. 

Source: SAMRC

Researchers estimate that 70% to 80% of excess deaths may be related to Covid-19 – which means that the true Covid-19 death toll in South Africa could be closer to 100,000.

READ | Covid may have killed 1 in 300 in the Eastern Cape – perhaps the worst rate in the world

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