Excess deaths divide Eastern and Western Europe in the coronavirus pandemic

EXCESS DEATHS

Europe’s COVID-19 divide

The death toll from the coronavirus pandemic has swelled across Europe, claiming over 450,000 lives. But the loss of life has been uneven between Eastern and Western Europe, with eastern countries escaping the worst of the first wave that devastated the West thanks to early lockdowns and social distancing measures.

But as spring and summer turned to autumn and winter, eastern countries relaxed some lockdown measures, and by the end of 2020 the pandemic had hit them hard too.

In terms of excess deaths — the number of deaths beyond what was normal in recent years — Eastern Europe has seen large spikes above normal levels at the end of the year that were last seen in March and April in the West. Europe’s pandemic has been a story of two Europes: One west, one east. One a devastating spring, the other a tragic autumn.

Measuring 2020’s excess deaths across Europe

Western countries

Percentage difference in weekly deaths

in 2020 compared with 2015-2019

average for the same week.

+100%

Weeks

+50%

Belgium

0

Italy

Spain

Belgium

England

and Wales

Eastern countries

Weeks

Bulgaria

Poland

Czech

Republic

0

+50%

+100%

Western countries

Eastern countries

Percentage difference in weekly deaths

in 2020 compared with 2015-2019

average for the same week.

50

50

5

5

Weeks

+100%

Weeks

Bulgaria

Slovenia

+50%

Poland

Belgium

10

10

Lithuania

0

Italy

Spain

Czech

Republic

40

40

Belgium

0

England

and Wales

+50%

20

20

+100%

30

30

Western countries

Eastern countries

Percentage difference in weekly deaths

in 2020 compared with 2015-2019

average for the same week.

50

50

5

5

Weeks

Weeks

+100%

+100%

Bulgaria

Lithuania

Slovenia

+50%

+50%

Poland

Belgium

10

10

0

0

Czech

Republic

Italy

Spain

40

Belgium

40

England

and Wales

20

20

30

30

Western countries

Percentage difference in weekly deaths

in 2020 compared with 2015-2019

average for the same week.

+100%

Weeks

+50%

Belgium

0

Italy

Spain

Belgium

England

and Wales

Eastern countries

Weeks

Bulgaria

Poland

Czech

Republic

0

+50%

+100%

The percentage difference between deaths recorded in 2020 each week and the average number recorded for the same weeks during the 5 previous years illustrates the stark contrast in trajectories the pandemic took between Western and Eastern European countries.

In the West, excess deaths during the early months of the pandemic mounted quickly in Italy, soaring 84% above the average by the last week of March and concentrated especially in the Lombardy region. In Belgium, deaths peaked at 106% above average in the second week of April, at 113% above average in England and Wales in the third week, and 156% higher in Spain, which saw 12,648 more deaths than the average in the first week of April, although only 5,838 were officially reported to be due to the coronavirus according to data from Our World in Data, which compiles statistics internationally.

Western countries

Eastern countries

Percentage difference in weekly deaths

in 2020 compared with 2015-2019

average for the same week.

+200

ITALY

SLOVAKIA

Peaked +39.9%

Nov. 8

0

0

(No data)

Peaked +84.4%

March 29

CZECH REP.

Peaked +106.4%

Nov. 8

SPAIN

0

0

Peaked +155.8%

April 5

HUNGARY

FRANCE

Peaked +59.7%

Nov. 15

0

0

Peaked +65.2%

April 5

POLAND

NETHERLANDS

0

0

Peaked +74.9%

April 12

Peaked +116.4%

Nov. 15

CROATIA

BELGIUM

Peaked +50.8%

Nov. 22

0

0

Peaked +105.6%

April 12

SLOVENIA

Peaked +108.6%

Nov. 29

SWEDEN

0

0

Peaked +47.1%

April 19

BULGARIA

ENGLAND AND WALES

Peaked +123.5%

Nov.29

0

0

Peaked +113.1%

April 19

LITHUANIA

Peaked +73.5%

Dec. 20

0

Western countries

that peaked in the first

part of the year

Eastern countries

that peaked in the second

part of the year

Percentage difference in weekly deaths

in 2020 compared with 2015-2019

average for the same week.

+200

SLOVAKIA

ITALY

Peaked +39.9%

Nov. 8

0

0

(No data)

Peaked +84.4%

March 29

CZECH REP.

Peaked +106.4%

Nov. 8

SPAIN

0

0

Peaked +155.8%

April 5

HUNGARY

FRANCE

Peaked +59.7%

Nov. 15

0

0

Peaked +65.2%

April 5

Peaked +116.4%

Nov. 15

POLAND

NETHERLANDS

0

0

Peaked +74.9%

April 12

CROATIA

BELGIUM

Peaked +50.8%

Nov. 22

0

0

Peaked +105.6%

April 12

SLOVENIA

Peaked +108.6%

Nov. 29

SWEDEN

0

0

Peaked +47.1%

April 19

BULGARIA

ENGLAND AND WALES

Peaked +123.5%

Nov. 29

0

0

Peaked +113.1%

April 19

LITHUANIA

Peaked +73.5%

(Dec. 20)

0

Western countries

that peaked in the first

part of the year

Eastern countries

that peaked in the second

part of the year

Percentage difference in weekly deaths

in 2020 compared with 2015-2019

average for the same week.

+200

ITALY

SLOVAKIA

Peaked +39.9%

Nov. 8

0

0

(No data)

Peaked +84.4%

March 29

CZECH REP.

Peaked +106.4%

Nov. 8

SPAIN

0

0

Peaked +155.8%

April 5

HUNGARY

FRANCE

Peaked +59.7%

Nov. 15

0

0

Peaked +65.2%

April 5

Peaked +116.4%

Nov. 15

POLAND

NETHERLANDS

0

0

Peaked +74.9%

April 12

CROATIA

BELGIUM

Peaked +50.8%

Nov. 22

0

0

Peaked +105.6%

April 12

SLOVENIA

Peaked +108.6%

Nov. 29

SWEDEN

0

0

Peaked +47.1%

April 19

BULGARIA

ENGLAND AND WALES

Peaked +123.5%

Nov. 29

0

0

Peaked +113.1%

April 19

LITHUANIA

Peaked +73.5%

Dec. 20

0

Western countries

Eastern countries

Percentage difference in weekly deaths

in 2020 compared with 2015-2019

average for the same week.

Dec.

2020

Jan.

2020

+200

ITALY

SLOVAKIA

(No data)

0

0

Peaked +39.9%

Nov. 8

Peaked +84.4%

March 29

SPAIN

CZECH REP.

0

0

Peaked +155.8%

April 5

Peaked +106.4%

Nov. 8

HUNGARY

FRANCE

0

0

Peaked +59.7%

Nov. 15

Peaked +65.2%

April 5

POLAND

NETHERLANDS

0

0

Peaked +116.4%

Nov. 15

Peaked +74.9%

April 12

CROATIA

BELGIUM

0

0

Peaked +50.8%

Nov. 22

Peaked +105.6%

April 12

SLOVENIA

SWEDEN

0

0

Peaked +47.1%

April 19

Peaked +108.6%

Nov. 29

BULGARIA

ENGLAND AND WALES

0

0

Peaked +113.1%

April 19

Peaked +123.5%

Nov. 29

LITHUANIA

0

Peaked +73.5%

Dec. 20

But in the East, large waves of excess deaths did not emerge until later in the year. The Czech Republic peaked at over 106% above normal the first week in November, at 109% in Slovenia in the final week, at 107% in Poland in the second week and in Bulgaria there were 2,596 excess deaths, or 124% more deaths than the average, in the last week in November.

Comparing two peaks in excess deaths by country — the first, the highest weekly total in the first half of the year; the second, in the second half — shows many large Western European countries experienced much larger peaks of excess deaths at the start of the pandemic, but in Eastern Europe, that trend was reversed.

East west waves

Difference between 2020 excess death peaks in the first half of the year and the second, in percentage points

First half 2020 peak > second

Second half peak > first

No data

+125

0

+125

Iceland

Finland

Norway

Estonia

Sweden

Latvia

Lithuania

Denmark

England

& Wales

Poland

Netherlands

Germany

Belgium

Czech Rep.

Slovakia

Austria

Hungary

France

Switzerland

Slovenia

Croatia

Bulgaria

Italy

Portugal

Spain

Greece

1st half 2020 peak > second

2nd half peak > first

+125

0

+125

No data

Iceland

Finland

Norway

Estonia

Sweden

Latvia

Lithuania

Denmark

England

& Wales

Poland

Netherlands

Germany

Belgium

Czech Rep.

Slovakia

Austria

Hungary

France

Switzerland

Slovenia

Croatia

Bulgaria

Italy

Portugal

Spain

Greece

Note: Excess deaths data not available for all countries due to differing mortality reporting

In fact, Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia, Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Latvia did not see their weekly excess deaths climb further than 10% above average in the first half of 2020.

The big swells of the east and the west

Why did the divide between east and west become so stark?

Italy — which was the European epicenter of the pandemic when it first broke out — Spain, the Netherlands, France and the United Kingdom put lockdown measures in place only after the number of cases and deaths were already high.

Spain, which had the highest weekly surge of excess deaths of all European countries in the first half of 2020, announced tough lockdown measures about six weeks after the first case appeared, by which time the country had recorded almost 200 deaths and was starting to see thousands of new infections daily.

Across the continent, Bulgaria declared a one-month epidemic emergency on March 13 with only one recorded COVID-19 death. The Eastern European country did not reach 200 deaths until the end of June.

Spain

Peak of 20,767 deaths during

the week ending April 5

Week 1

5-year average

Excess deaths

COVID

NOT COVID

10K

20K

Week 1

Bulgaria

Peak of 4,698 deaths during

the week ending Nov. 29

5K

10K

Spain

Peak of 20,767 deaths during

the week ending April 5

Bulgaria

Peak of 4,698 deaths during

the week ending Nov. 29

Week 1

5-year average

Week 1

Excess deaths

COVID

NOT COVID

5K

10K

10K

20K

Spain

Peak of 20,767 deaths during

the week ending April 5

Bulgaria

Peak of 4,698 deaths during

the week ending Nov. 29

Week 1

5-year average

Week 1

Excess deaths

COVID

NOT COVID

5K

10K

10K

20K

Spain

Peak of 20,767 deaths during

the week ending April

Week 1

5-year average

Excess deaths

COVID

NOT COVID

10K

20K

Week 1

Bulgaria

Peak of 4,698 deaths

during the week

ending Nov. 29

5K

10K

But after a strict early lockdown, Bulgaria began pulling back and by June eased most of the restrictive measures it imposed in the middle of March, allowing restaurants and shopping malls to reopen and lifting bans on inter-city travel. It also lifted an entry ban for citizens from the EU.

Once one of the least-affected European countries in the early stages of the pandemic, Bulgaria saw death rates soar, recording 6,551 officially reported COVID-19 deaths and almost 16,419 excess deaths in the weeks from September to the end of 2020. Newly infected patients overwhelmed hospitals.

Europe’s loss is mounting

With just a tenth of the world’s population, Europe remains — along with the United States — one of the worst-affected regions, accounting for about 1 in every 5 COVID-19 deaths reported worldwide as of Jan. 23 this year.

After a surge of cases in October and November, many European countries have reined in infections by imposing stricter lockdowns and social restrictions, but a tragic surge from Christmas gatherings was likely the cause for Europe’s highest daily number of COVID-19 deaths, reported at 5,089, on Jan. 19, 2021.

Daily COVID-19 deaths in Europe

6,000

Daily deaths reported

4,000

7-day average

2,000

Dec. 31, 2020

Jan. 25, 2021

6,000

Daily deaths reported

4,000

7-day

average

2,000

Dec. 31, 2020

Jan. 25, 2021

In Ireland, increased socialising around Christmas was the reason for it going from the lowest infection rate in the European Union to the highest, health officials said. Two weeks later, on Jan. 10, Ireland was reporting more than 1,300 new COVID-19 infections per million people on average each day, the highest per capita rate in Europe.

Governments across Europe announced in mid-January tighter and longer coronavirus lockdowns and curbs amid fears of a fast-spreading variant first detected in Britain that has caused cases to soar there.

As Europe waits to see if cases and deaths fall from post-Christmas peaks, the EU braces for delayed relief from the vaccines.

Malta and Denmark have administered the most vaccines in the EU with 6.08 and 4.49 doses per 100 people respectively. All EU member states are far behind Israel with 54.78, the United Kingdom with 13.95 and the United States with 8.94 as of Jan. 30, 2021.

Hope lies in the vaccines, but roll-outs in much of Europe have been fraught with production and delivery problems.

Note

Data was extracted on Jan. 25, 2021. Due to different mortality reporting, 2020 COVID-19 and excess deaths data are not available for Ireland, Malta, Romania, Cyprus and Liechtenstein. To aggregate European total COVID-19 deaths, Reuters aggregated figures reported by Our World in Data for the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Iceland and the 27 EU member states except Cyprus. Some countries change the way they’re reporting COVID-19 deaths, which can lead to a significant increase or decrease, but this piece does not include any negative COVID-19 death counts.

Source

Our World in Data

By

Michael Ovaska and Samuel Granados

Edited by

Jon McClure and Mike Collett-White