Why more Aussies than ever are dying

A new report from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) has given fresh insight into how the virus has impacted the nation’s health. One way of understanding the impact of the pandemic is looking at death rates – or what the experts refer to as excess mortality. It’s a measure that calculates how many people are expected to die each week compared with how many people actually died.Deaths above the expected rate over two consecutive weeks are labelled “excess mortality”. Prior to the pandemic, death rates were decreasing. With lockdowns and other public health measures in place, Australia had fewer deaths from all causes during 2020 and 2021. “There were 205 fewer deaths than expected in 2020 and 94 more deaths than expected in 2021,” AIHW deputy chief executive Matthew James said. This was largely due to reduced deaths from the flu and pneumonia. Australia managed to keep Covid deaths very low for nearly two years.But the decision to roll back restrictions amid surging Omicron cases led to 3105 more deaths than expected in January and February 2022 alone. If you lived in a low socio-economic area you were three times more likely to die from Covid than those living in the highest socio-economic area. If you were born overseas, you were 2.5 times more likely to die from Covid. Additionally, the rate of severe disease from Covid-19 (ICU admission and/or death) was seven times higher for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people compared with the Australian population overall.In 2021, Covid-19 accounted for 23,000 years of healthy life lost. The AIHW said the total fatal burden – or years of life lost due to dying prematurely – from the virus equated to 15 years of life lost per person. How does this compare with other diseases?The data indicates that while Covid-19 has accounted for a high proportion of excess deaths in the first part of 2022, there has also been higher than expected deaths due to other conditions. Deaths from coronary heart disease (29 per cent), dementia (24 per cent) and chronic lower respiratory conditions (23 per cent) have also been higher. Stoke (20 per cent) and diabetes (14 per cent) round out the top five biggest killers this year to date.The good newsDuring pandemic lockdowns there had been concern that social distancing measures could lead to a rise in suspected deaths by suicide. Thursday’s AIHW report indicates to date that fear has not eventuated. “Despite a rise in the use of mental health services and an increase in psychological distress, Covid-19 has not been associated with a rise in suspected deaths by suicide,” Mr James said.

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