- 129,000 Australians died from January to August last year – 13.2 per cent more than in the same period in 2021.
- COVID-19 directly accounted for 7700 of those deaths.
- Deaths from dementia and diabetes also increased substantially in 2022 compared to historical averages.
- The increase in deaths has temporarily lowered Australia’s life expectancy.
Nearly 130,000 Australians died in the first eight months of last year, 17 per cent above the historical rate of deaths, temporarily lowering the nation’s life expectancy.
Three years after the COVID-19 pandemic reached Australia, the government’s annual population statement reveals that older Australians are expected to continue dying at elevated rates through the first half of this year.
In the first eight months of 2022, the first year when all major COVID-19 restrictions were dropped, 129,000 Australians died. That was 13.2 per cent more than in the same period the previous year and 17 per cent above the historical average, in part due to COVID-19 as well as higher than average deaths from other diseases.
COVID directly accounted for 7700 of those deaths.
The population report showed that for people with underlying health conditions, COVID-19 continued to be a serious risk.
“Early data suggests COVID-19 may increase the risk of dying from other causes, while pre-existing conditions may also increase the risk of dying from COVID-19,” the report said.
Deaths from dementia and diabetes also increased substantially in 2022 compared to the historical averages – by 18.9 per cent for dementia and 20.8 per cent for diabetes.
Those conditions were among the most reported pre-existing conditions that increased the risk of serious disease or death from COVID-19, the report noted.
The increase in deaths has temporarily lowered Australia’s life expectancy. For 2021-22, life expectancies are expected to have fallen by just short of five months, and for 2022-23, they are forecast to drop by about 2½ months for men and 3½ months for women.
After that, life expectancies will likely gradually increase. In 10 years, the average life expectancy is projected to reach 87 years for women and 83.5 years for men.
Australia moved quickly to manage the pandemic, closing the international border in early 2020 while rolling lockdowns were enforced across much of the country. Vaccine take-up has been strong – 96 per cent of people aged 16 and up have had at least two doses of a vaccine.
COVID-19 deaths in Australia peaked at 3.3 per million in January last year, and 3.7 per million in July. By comparison, COVID-19 deaths peaked at 20.6 per million in the United Kingdom and 10 per million in the United States in January 2021.
Life expectancies in those countries also fell further in 2020 – dropping by 1½ years for men and one year for women in the UK, and two years for men and 1.4 years for women in the US.
Professor Jodie McVernon, director of Doherty epidemiology, said people needed to be mindful of the fact that compared to other nations, the COVID-19 impact on Australia had been relatively modest.
“Every death is a loss, but in terms of the wider global burden in countries of comparable income, Australia did manage to reduce that toll,” she said.
McVernon noted that some people with chronic conditions delayed medical care in the last three years, as the pandemic overwhelmed hospitals, making people wary of seeking help.
“For a little while, those sorts of under-treated chronic conditions and delay presentations are going to continue to play out,” she said.
Federal Labor MP Dr Mike Freelander has previously expressed concern at the higher than normal deaths through 2022. Chairing the Senate inquiry into long-COVID, he said the investigation would look at how COVID-19 might increase inflammatory responses and what could be done to modify those risks.
Despite fears earlier in the pandemic that extended lockdowns and social-distancing restrictions could drive a surge in suicide rates, the report said so far the suicide rate had dropped compared to pre-pandemic levels.
The report assumes the increased death rate in people aged over 60 will continue for the first half of this year, but notes the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the country’s mortality rate were “highly uncertain”.
“The degree to which ‘long-COVID’, ongoing mutations of the virus, and public health responses affect future mortality is unknown, which is a material uncertainty for future projections,” the report said.
McVernon said with good national vaccine coverage and milder variants, Australians could hope for less uncertainty in the future, “where we have sort of grumbling waves and smaller epidemics, rather than these big catastrophic things that happen”.
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