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Number of deaths in Sweden during the pandemic – compared to previous years’ mortality

This blog has previously reported that Statistics Sweden has been working on quickly getting new data on the number of deaths in Sweden. It is now released every Monday.

(this story was first published in swedish. Translated by Erik Jonsson)

So far there are 5 744 confirmed deaths with covid-19 according to the Swedish Public Health Agency. The highest number for a single week is for the week between the 8th and 15th of April, when an average of 115 people died daily. There is, however, a death report lag and there are still 5 cases of death whose date is set as “no data” by the Swedish Public Health Agency.

Each year around 90 000 Swedes die in total, approximately 250 people a day. In 2019 unusually few Swedes passed away, 89 000. Not since year 1977 have so few people died in Sweden, according to Statistics Sweden. The year before, 2018, 92 000 people died and there was an unusually high number of deaths from the flu.

The yearly death rate also depends on how many people are born each year. In Sweden there were relatively few people born in the 1920s and 30s, but with a higher birth rate in the 40s. We also live longer today than we did a few years ago and the population in Sweden has seen a significant rise during the 2000s. There are, in other words, many reasons why comparisons over a number of years are difficult.

Statistics Sweden has chosen the last five years and created an average of how many people have died per year. The data can then be compared with 2020 and with that measure an excess mortality can be established.

During the 15th week of the year, we saw the highest death rate in Sweden this millenium. A total number of 2505 people, 358 a day, passed away. Not since the first week of year 2000 that many people have died in Sweden. The 14th and 16th week of 2020 is third and fourth respectively on that same list. The month of April is the deadliest in Sweden since the 1990s with 10 458 deaths. You have to go back to December 1993, when 11,057 people died, to find a higher figure. At that time, the flu was unusually malignant. If you go past that month, you have to look back to 1918 and the Spanish flu to find a more deadly month.

Of course, the numbers should also be measured in relation to how big the population is. With that measure, there are several months that have seen a higher death rate. The most recent month was December of 2000, when 110.8 Swedes died per 100 000 people, compared to 101.1 in April this year. But there are several reasons to be cautious with comparisons back in time. You can find a more thorough rundown of historical statistics here.

This is what the preliminary data for the weekly death rate in Sweden looks like, compared to the average (note that the numbers from week 30 will rise).

From having a high excess mortality during the pandemic, the death rate has sunk since May to finally land on more normal levels in June. During the second half of June, we even see a mortality below normal for the first time since the pandemic, something that is expected after a period of high mortality in older age groups.

The fact that we are within standard variation becomes even more clear if you consider the death rate during for each of the five years, 2015-2019, and compare with 2020.

Certain regions have been hit especially hard. In Stockholm, the number of deaths has been significantly higher than the average, but has now sunk to more normal levels even if there still is some excess mortality. The graph below measures number of deaths reported up until the 29th week of the year (and the numbers for the final week might rise a little still).

Other regions, such as Västra Götaland, have had a completely different curve, but the rate is sinking there as well and it is preliminarily lower than normal.

All this means that we have a surplus of mortality, which now, with a first tendency of lower mortality could lead to the year’s total number of deaths being significantly lower than what this spring has indicated so far.

The former population statistician Åke Nilsson has previously explained how, for example, ten thousand deaths with covid-19 will not necessarily mean that ten thousand more will die in Sweden this year, than expected.

It is complicated to understand the reasons behind all of this. One could potentially view it as there should be even more deaths and those that otherwise would have died of the flu do not die now. The Public Health Agency’s advice about washing your hands seems to have had desired effect as the annual norovirus – which can sometimes lead to deadly infections – went away seven weeks earlier than normal this year.

The fact that the norovirus disappeared already in March could have affected the death rate, but it could also mean that the same people have instead been infected by covid-19. There is of course also a risk that those who have had a stomach bug have not tried to get help for it, but a common way to measure how widespread the flu is, is to look at the number of google searches. We see it declining this year in comparable ways.

However, it is also likely that the number of traffic deaths and stress related diseases is lower this year. Just as there are signals that the number of suicides has increased.

Something that is not yet clear in any of the comparisons above is how health care has adjusted and in some regions reached a critical state. If that had not happened, the mortality rate had probably been higher. That is also why it is important to flatten the curve, that is to keep the number of seriously ill people down, so that our health care can manage.

Finally, one aspect is clear in the statistics: foreign born are comparably much more affected than native Swedes.

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  • Ma augusti 12, 2020, 20:38

    Why is there no info about the second half of the year before 2020? What does the normal chart look like?

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