Convergence in Excess Mortality in Western Europe

Are a certain number of Covid deaths more-or-less unavoidable? Or is it possible to not merely ‘crush the curve’ of mortality, but to prevent it from ever rising in the first place?

It’s clear from excess mortality data that some countries have ‘done’ substantially better than others, although how much this has to do with policy – let alone lockdowns – remains to be seen. (It could be culture or pre-existing immunity.)

For example, I’ve argued that early border controls are what allowed geographically peripheral state like Norway and New Zealand to escape the first wave, and shield their elderly populations until such time as vaccines and better treatments became available.

On the other hand, the vaccines don’t seem to be as effective at preventing death as originally claimed, with several countries witnessing sizeable upticks in excess mortality even after vaccinating the vast majority of their elderly populations.

Consider the chart below, which shows cumulative excess mortality since the start of the pandemic for every country in Western Europe. The exact definition of ‘cumulative excess mortality’ is given below the title.

The main thing to notice is that the lines diverge massively around the time of the first wave, and then gradually converge over the following two years. This means that Western countries’ pandemic death tolls have been getting more similar over time.

At the end of April 2020, the difference between the country with the greatest excess mortality (Spain) and the country with the least (Denmark) was 31 percentage points. By December of 2020, this range had fallen to 19 percentage points. And as of mid-March of 2022, it is down to 12 percentage points.

In other words, the countries that did worse at the beginning have been doing better more recently, while the countries that did best at the beginning have been doing worse more recently. This suggest that, in Western Europe, a certain number of Covid deaths are more-or-less unavoidable.

On the other hand, there’s still a fair amount of spread as of mid-March of 2022, indicating that some countries – notably Denmark, Finland and Norway – have done consistently better than the rest. Rather than converging all the way to Italian levels of excess mortality, they have instead maintained their ‘lead’.

If you add in certain countries in Eastern Europe, the pattern of convergence falls apart, as shown in the chart below.

Bulgaria missed the first wave, but has been doing badly ever since, most likely due – in part – to its low elderly vaccination rate. According to a recent article, less than 30% of over 60s were double-vaccinated in January.

Overall then, Western Europe has seen mortality convergence, but Europe as a whole – encompassing both West and East – has not. This most likely stems from differences in the timing of epidemic waves, pre-existing cultural differences, and low elderly vaccination rates in some Eastern European countries.

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December 2022
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