Warsaw, Poland – Poland and the Czech Republic recorded among the highest excess death rates in Europe in 2020, according to Notes from Poland calculations based on raw Eurostat data.
In total, the EU recorded over 580,000 more deaths between March and December 2020 compared to the same period in 2016-2019.
Excess death rates skyrocket in Europe in 2020
While mortality remained slightly below the bloc’s annual average in January and February, deaths rose steeply in March as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching its first peak in April, where the mortality rate was 25% higher than average, EU-wide.
Excess deaths dropped to a lower level between May and July, before once more rising in August and September as European countries relaxed their anti-coronavirus restrictions and reopened for the summer period.
EU-wide mortality peaked at the end of the year as the second wave hit the continent, with over 40% and 30% excess deaths registered in November and December, respectively.
Deaths increased by 20% in Poland last year
Some countries were more hit than others, and the peaks and intensity of the outbreaks varied greatly across member states.
According to Eurostat, Poland recorded the single highest excess mortality rate among EU member states in 2020 (20.3% additional deaths compared to annual average in 2016-2019). In absolute terms, a total of more than 485,000 people are estimated to have died in Poland last year, compared to an annual average of 404,000 in previous years.
Eurostat’s figures confirm the Polish government’s own data, which estimated that around 80,000 more people had died in 2020, or 20% higher than the annual average.
A deadly second wave
The Czech Republic was the fifth hardest-hit with 18.3% more deaths than usual, according to Eurostat – last month, the Czech statistical office had estimated the number of deaths to have increased by 15% in 2020, still the highest annual rise since the end of the Second World War.
Monthly figures acutely illustrate how both countries, who introduced strict and early lockdowns in March, were largely sparred by the first wave in the spring – with their excess mortality rate remaining in the low figures until July 2020 – but were deeply affected by the second wave (see graph below).
In November, deaths recorded in Poland and the Czech Republic were 97% and 76% higher than their annual average. While excess mortality subsequently dropped in Poland, it rebounded in neighbouring Czech Republic in January this year, a resurgence commonly linked to a hazardous reopening in the first half of December.
The exact number of people who died from COVID-19 remains subject to controversy, however.
In Poland, the Health Ministry identified only 28,500 deaths as COVID-related out of the country’s 80,000 excess deaths, but experts note that many deaths caused by the virus were not recorded in official statistics, which also fail to include indirect deaths engendered by the pandemic – people who did not seek treatment for other illnesses due to fear of the virus, for instance.
Similarly, the Czech Republic’s official COVID-related death toll of approximately 12,000 in 2020 is widely believed to be undervalued.
Elsewhere in Europe, other countries where mortality rates reached their highest levels in 2020 include Spain (19.9% above the annual average), Italy (19.5%) and Slovenia (19.5%), while the lowest were found in Latvia (1.8%), Finland (2.5%) and Denmark (3%).