The Stats Guy: The good news about Australia’s deaths data

It's Australia v Germany in Simon Kuestenmacher's latest look at the stats.

It's Australia v Germany in Simon Kuestenmacher's latest look at the stats. Image: TND

We are much concerned with the topic of death during the pandemic.

COVID-19 death figures are announced daily at press conferences, we even put whole states under lockdown to minimise the number of deaths.

We succeeded in that endeavour. No region of the world protected its people better from dying of COVID-19 than Oceania. Only 50 out of one million residents (or one in 20,000) died of the virus.

This number is about 35 times higher in Europe or the Americas (about one in 580). While lockdowns are extremely costly financially and psychologically, they certainly kept us from dying.

What does death in Australia look like? Let’s mention the obvious first. The older you are, the more likely you are to die.

The sad exception here is infants. About 3.3 out of every 1000 infants die every year. Over the next five decades of your life, you are safer from dying than when you were a baby. At 54, your likelihood of dying is as big as in your first year of life – from there on death becomes increasingly inevitable.

When exactly do Australians die?

We don’t have daily data on this topic and can’t create a grim version of the most common birthdays chart. We do however know the month of death for Australians.

Over the long-term (2009 to 2019), an average of about 152,000 Aussies died every year – that equates to 417 deaths per day.

Deaths aren’t equally distributed across the year though. The two deadliest months are July and August with 465 daily deaths. The safest month in the year is December, when only 375 deaths are recorded per day. Santa seems to bring the gift of life too.

The seasonality in the data is pretty obvious; when the weather is fine, when families get together, when the cricket is on, there is enough life left in many people to hang on for a little bit longer. In the bleak winter months, it is a bit easier to let go.

But what do we die of in Australia?

Let’s look at the data for the calendar year 2020.

The top killers in Australia are still ischaemic heart diseases (17,000 deaths); dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease (15,000 deaths); cerebrovascular diseases, including strokes (9000 deaths); malignant neoplasm of trachea, bronchus and lung (8000 deaths); and chronic lower respiratory diseases (7000 deaths).

COVID-19 was only the 38th leading cause of death, with 898 fatalities recorded in 2020.

Overall, 2020 saw a decrease in mortality across Australia as 8000 fewer people died than in 2019. Essentially, the lockdowns ensured that we avoided all types of fun stuff and risky activities that could kill us.

Sadly, alcohol-induced death rates went the other way and increased by 8.3 per cent, to around 1500 in 2020 compared with 2019. Counted here are only deaths directly attributed to alcohol use. This includes acute conditions such as alcohol poisoning, but the driver for the increased fatalities was due to chronic conditions such as alcoholic liver cirrhosis which are linked to long-term alcohol use.

Can the extraordinarily difficult situation of living under lockdowns be the reason for the increased alcohol deaths?

We don’t have data to answer this question, but since deaths due to suicide decreased by about 5 per cent in 2020 (3100 deaths; 15th most common cause of death), we can’t conclude that Australian mental health suffered as much as we might’ve expected due to the lockdowns.

At the start of the pandemic, experts voiced their concerns that suicide rates could reach record highs because of social isolation and despair in a locked-down society.

The strong press coverage predicting a spike in suicides might have been a reversed self-fulfilling prophecy. Because of the heightened awareness of suicide, we reached out more frequently to our friends and support services were funded and well-advertised.

Furthermore, people, even though in despair, might not have felt alone in their suffering as everyone around them was locked down as well.

Deaths due to drug-induced overdosing were also down. This is likely not because Australians lost their desire to get high but because drugs are harder to get and more expensive (a silver lining to the global supply chain bottlenecks). Also, the social opportunities to consume drugs at festivals and nightclubs were limited in 2020.

While being locked up and listening to yet another press conference on daily death counts it’s understandable that you might contemplate your own mortality. I hope this death data puts you in a slightly better mood.

The deadly four months of the year are behind us and you can enjoy the safest time of the year in peace – if you are double-vaxxed even growing COVID-19 case numbers shouldn’t kill your groove.

Topics: COVID-19
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