Disclaimer: Opinions expressed below belong solely to the author
Or is it? It’s not so simple as it may seem at first, so let’s dig into the details.
According to national statistics released on June 30, the total number of deaths recorded in Singapore jumped by a record 10 per cent last year — or 2,238 people to be exact.
Deaths have been on the rise in the city-state for many years now, as a result of gradual ageing of the society coupled with a still growing population of residents and immigrant workers.
Typically, the count goes up by a few hundred souls each year. In a 10-year period until 2019, deaths have gone up on average by about 2.2 per cent annually, though since 2017, the pace has slowed down to about 1.3 per cent.
These two figures give us approximate brackets for the death count that we could have expected in 2020 and 2021.
All in all, between about 43,730 and 44,300 people could have been reasonably expected to have died in these two years, based on the lower and higher estimates, versus 46,346 who actually passed away — this puts excess death estimates at around 2,046 up to 2,616 people.
Meanwhile, since the beginning of the pandemic until 31 December 2021, Singapore had recorded just 828 Covid-19 fatalities. This means that the total number of excess deaths is between 2.5 to over 3 times higher than official Covid-19 data.
Why is it so? Is the government lying to the public? Hiding the real image of the pandemic from the society? Well, no.
The problem is that the disruptions caused by the virus have resulted in excess fatalities around the world, not necessarily due to the virus itself.
In fact, according to WHO, data up to 31 December 2021 (so, the same period), the estimated total number of excess deaths around the world stood at 14.91 million versus 5.42 million deaths due to Covid-19, which were officially reported.
This is about 2.75 times higher, so somewhere in the middle of the range I quickly computed for Singapore.
The situation is similar in all countries and, typically, it is worst where the virus has disrupted healthcare services the most, overloading the system to the breaking point, often delaying scheduled surgeries or even life-saving treatments.
Some, like India, may have suffered excess death toll as high as 10 times the reported Covid fatalities.
These excess deaths may have occurred due to unreported or undiagnosed Covid infections, but also due to reduced access to healthcare services, visits to specialists, regular check-ups or disruptions to lives and lifestyles, which had additional toll on the people (uncertainty, stress and even crime in some countries), hastening their demise.
The exact toll may actually go down with time
Interestingly, what I do not see discussed in the media, reasonable estimates of the real toll of the virus may actually go down if averaged over a few years. This is due to the fact that because Covid-19 was most lethal to the elderly, it has likely accelerated the deaths of people who would otherwise have died in the near future anyway.
Of course, as famed economist John Maynard Keynes quipped “in the long run, we are all dead” — so we could pick a long enough period for all excess deaths to even out (because we all have to die one day) — but I think it makes sense to remember that most of the fatalities were among groups already expected to pass in the coming years.
This is why current computations of excess mortality are inherently flawed, as the unexpected consequence of the pandemic may be a drop in total death rates in the near term, since the virus increased them among those who would already die sooner rather than later.
As a result, it will take a while before we are able to come up with a meaningful average for the years during and post pandemic. While more people have died in the past two years, fewer are likely to die in the next few, after all.
Perhaps we shouldn’t look at deaths in an absolute manner but rather how much time the virus has robbed its victims of. A dead 20-year-old could have reasonably lived another 60+ years but an octogenarian may have had just one or two left.
Covid has only accelerated the inevitable among the population near its predicted life expectancy, so it might best to use it as a point of reference as to how damaging the pandemic has actually been. After all, even during normal years, about 800 people die in Singapore due to flu and many battling chronic diseases ultimately succumb to pneumonia.
That’s why it’s important to understand the entire context behind the reported figures before we can make educated conclusions.
Featured Image Credit: Tan Tock Seng Hospital Facebook page
Also Read: Real death toll of the pandemic in S’pore is up to 3 times higher than official COVID data