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  • Writer's pictureJose Arrieta

A Lost Month

During the last year, we have direct evidence that four million people have died while infected with the SARS COV2 virus. This is a lot of people and it has particularly affected the generation of my grandparents. Under no condition will I contend that a lot more people have died because of the existence of COVID than would there have died in the absence of this virus. Yet, every year around 60M people die. Also, disproportionally affecting my grandparent's generation. So there is value in digging at the question of what it means to die while presenting symptoms of COVID, versus dying in the absence of these symptoms.

Excess death is a great way of getting accurate estimates of what "a lot" can mean in terms of death. Given that people die in a somewhat predictable manner, one can create charts of the expected numbers of death per week and compare them to the observed number of deaths that eventually came to be. The use of this technique has the benefit of eliminating comorbidity errors. Comorbidity being cases in which people died of multiple diseases but none can actually be deemed culpable. It allows us to clean our observation and look at the real effect of COVID on the death toll.

EUROMOMO is an initiative that collects the number of dead people per week for a large number of countries in Europe, covering a population of around 420M. Every year, in their panel, deaths go through a mostly sinusoidal cycle. Week 4 tends to have the highest death count with about 76.6k deaths, and week 31 the lowest, at 64.0k deaths in the week. From this, around 3;65M people are expected to die each year within the panel in question.

Not in 2020. In 2020, there was an excess death toll of 393 392 people. This is an increase of 10% over the expected death toll. This 10% is multiples higher than what one would expect from the world's data (4/(58.3x1.5) = 4.6%). Turns out that given that the EU has a higher testing rate than other places in the world. Thus, the chances of being detected as having COVID at the time of death leads to an actual increase in the excess death, over and above what any comorbidity can fudge around.

However, percentages and even multiples are hard to grasp. Given that people die every day, we can think of the excess death as added days to the year. This tells us that COVID added 39 days of death to its calendar toll. We lost more than a full moon cycle. Thrice the adjustment done by Pope Gregory XIII in order to account for the missed leap years lost in over a millenium of miscalculations. More than the time many chickens are allowed to live in our world. The death toll of 2020 was as if the year had had 13 months! A lost month.

Thirteen. I was born on January 13th. All my life, I have heard bad jokes about this number. I took it as frivolous fun but this time the number 13 really scares me. A month is a real experience. It takes a month for the moon to go through its faces. I treasure the fractions of months I can visit my family in Costa Rica. Our lives are ruled by months and COVID stole one from us. COVID stole a month with our loved ones. A month of experience, laughter, and joy. Under any statistical definition, this is "a lot" and too much for me to imagine. My thoughts are with the people who lost someone in this wretched thirteen month.

PS: In the case of Germany, the expected deaths for the last 12 months were 986k, and the number of deaths by people with COVID was 83k. This number puts us close to the 8% mark. However, the excess deaths in Germany are much lower than the 80k mark.

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