There’s more than enough news around at the moment to get you down, however, as demographers, we look to understand deaths and the death rate as an important part of the demographic story of any place.
In this blog, Glenn looks at what is ‘normal’ for the death rate in Australia, as we all try to understand the magnitude COVID-19’s impact. And while the virus continues to be a threat we must take seriously, it’s uplifting to remember that, as a society, our life expectancy continues to increase, and the drastic measures we’ve taken so far to arrest the spread of COVID-19 mean we’re unlikely to see the virus cause a significant demographic event (at least in terms of deaths – migration is a very different story) in this country.
If this topic raises any concerns for you | Please take the opportunity to access the support available from one of the services we’ve listed below.
The current COVID-19 pandemic is generating some grim statistics and predictions on the number of deaths associated with the disease. There are some awful figures coming from some countries on the number of people dying per day. While it looks like Australia’s efforts to slow the virus via social distancing are having a significant successful impact, early estimates of potential Australian deaths from the coronavirus were in the order of 50,000 to 150,000, based on a 1% death rate.
While it’s not a nice topic, it’s pretty important to put this in context. We have good information on how many people die each year in Australia, so in this blog I’ll have a look at these numbers and the main causes of death.
Where does information about deaths come from?
The ABS puts out two publications each year looking at deaths.
Deaths, Australia (3302.0) looks at the numbers of deaths by various demographic characteristics and death rates.
Causes of Death, Australia (3303.0) looks at the causes of death in a bit of detail. The current data on both of these is from the 2018 calendar year (year of registration).
The 2018 calendar year saw 158,493 deaths registered in Australia, at a rate of 5.1 per 1,000 population (based on a standardised age distribution which allows comparison between populations of different age structures).
This was an increase of about 15,000 deaths per year on 2008 numbers (10 year comparison), but that’s due to higher population – the death rate fell from 6.1 to 5.1 in that time period. As per my previous blog, life expectancy has been generally increasing in Australia, so death rates have gone down in most age groups over a decade.
The deaths number is a really important input into our population forecasts. ‘Births minus deaths’ is ‘Natural increase’ – the amount that population would grow in the absence of any overseas migration. There are generally in Australia around twice the number of births as deaths, so our population continues to grow in this regard. This typically makes up somewhere around 35-40% of Australia’s total population growth.
This also dispells one of the myths around population growth – that Australia’s population would be falling if not for overseas migration (like Japan’s is now). This would eventually happen due to ageing population, but it would take around 25-30 years for that to occur based on the current numbers (notwithstanding potential one-off events like COVID-19).
|Year||Births||Deaths||Natural Increase||Total Population Growth||% natural increase|
What are the main causes of death in Australia?
This is probably deserving of a blog in itself, but in 2018, the main causes of death were
- Heart disease (17,533)
- Altzheimers and dementia (13,963)
- Cerebro-vascular diseases, eg. stroke (9,976), and
- Cancers of the lungs (8,586)
Note that Cancer is the biggest killer when you combine them (about 46,000 deaths combined) – but the causes of death publication splits cancers into a number of different categories, while Heart Disease is split into fewer categories.
Check the median age column of these death figures in the publication as well. All the main causes of death have a median age over 70, most over 80, indicating that you are far more likely to die at older ages from the vast majority of causes. The one major outlier here is “Intentional Self-Harm”, the medical term for what is commonly known by its legal name – Suicide – with a median age of 44, and 3,046 deaths in 2018. It is the number 1 cause of death for all people aged 15-44.
Of particular interest in the Coronavirus pandemic are two categories –
Chronic Lower Respiratory Diseases – 7,889 deaths – these are things like Asthma, Emphysema and Bronchitis – these are known to be strong co-morbidities with COVID-19, so people with these illnesses are highly vulnerable in the pandemic. But these diseases already kill a lot of people each year in Australia themselves.
Influenza and Pneumonia – 3,102 deaths – My understanding (and I am not an infectious disease expert!) is that many coronavirus deaths are the result of a complication which develops, often Pneumonia or a related condition. In 2018 over 90% of these 3,102 deaths were from Pneumonia, with only about 200 deaths from seasonal influenza. If deaths from COVID-19 pick up, it’s quite likely that many will be classified into this category.
What impact will Coronavirus have on the number of deaths in Australia?
The short answer is that “no-one knows for sure”. We are seeing some horrendous numbers coming out of Italy, Spain, the UK and the USA at the time of writing, with 1000+ deaths per day in some of these places (remembering, of course, the populations of these nations are much larger than Australia).
The initial ‘worst case’ modelling, which was done in March, suggested 50,000-150,000 deaths from the virus in Australia. If this happened in the next year it would potentially see an increase of 30% to 100% in the deaths numbers for the year, which is enormous. Doubling the number of deaths would bring it to 300,000 for a year, which is around the same as the number of births, and therefore would wipe out natural increase in population for the year. But even in this worst case, it’s probably unlikely to actually have this effect on the deaths numbers. That’s because it’s known that Covid-19 disproportionately kills the elderly and those with chronic illnesses already. While tragic, it can’t be assumed that you just add those deaths numbers to the total, as some of those would have been in the mortality rate anyway, which, as we’ve seen above, is significant from these diseases on their own.
What it does look like is that Australia’s implementation of strict social distancing, contact testing and tracing has reduced the number of cases substantially. It seems unlikely at the moment that the worst case is going to happen, or anything close to it. Our low population density may also be having an impact. The number of deaths at the time of writing (April 17th) stands at 63 people. While each death is a tragedy, this number is not enough to make even a blip in the total deaths numbers for the year. Of course, this may still increase substantially, but even if it were to increase 100-fold, this is only a 3-4% increase in deaths expected for the year. This is the impact of the popular concept of “flattening the curve” in relation to the worst-case scenario.
If Australia continues on this trajectory, it would appear that Coronavirus won’t have a big impact on the number of deaths in Australia (in the context of overall demographic patterns in the population). There is, however, a bigger impact on population growth. About 60% of Australia’s population growth comes from overseas migration, and we have closed our borders. It’s likely that overseas migration will be substantially lower in the next year, and this could be a much bigger impact on the total population than deaths or births.
We’re here to help you understand the impact of Covid-19 on your community
Just a reminder that we are here to help you through the current crisis. There is a lot of population information in our community profiles and social atlases for local areas. For our partners in local government, we’re here to support you by finding other data sources and doing data modelling to help you understand the impact in your area. If you need assistance, get in touch with us here and tell us what you’re working on.
As demographers, this is a subject we consider closely, however, we appreciate it’s not something everyone is comfortable discussing. If you or anyone you know needs help, we’d encourage you to get in touch with one of these services:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
BY GLENN – THE CENSUS EXPERT · First published APRIL 17, 2020
Copyright © 2010-2020 .id Consulting Pty Ltd
Glenn – The Census Expert
Glenn is the resident Census expert from .id Consulting Pty Ltd. After ten years working at the ABS, Glenn’s deep knowledge of the Census has been a crucial input in the development of community profiles. These tools help everyday people uncover the rich and important stories about our communities that are often hidden deep in the Census data. Glenn is also a most prolific blogger. Take a quick look at more blogs by Glen. Glenn travels the country giving sought-after briefings to councils and communities (these are also great opportunities for Glenn to tend to his rankings in Geolocation games such as Munzee and Geocaching).