“Europe is enduring a grim spring,” said an FT article dated 4th April. “COVID-19 infections, hospitalisations and deaths are rising in many countries,” it goes on to claim. The article presents data suggesting that March saw elevated COVID-19 death rates in a number of European countries.
This characterisation is borne out by Our World in Data’s chart of the daily number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths for the European Union – which is shown below. (The chart for Europe as a whole is highly similar.)
According to the chart, there was a peak of mortality in the spring of 2020, corresponding to the first wave (which afflicted countries such as Italy, Spain and the U.K). Then there was another peak of mortality in the winter, corresponding to the second wave (when countries such as Poland, Czechia and Hungary were also afflicted).
And the chart indicates there was an additional peak of mortality in the spring of 2021, corresponding to the third wave. This peak is lower than the first two, but still quite considerable. On April 13th, there were more than 2,800 COVID-19 deaths in Europe (compared to just under 3,600 at the peak of the second wave).
Yet as I’ve noted repeatedly, “confirmed COVID-19 deaths” can be misleading, since some of the people who die of COVID-19 (either shortly after a positive test, or with COVID-19 on the death certificate) would have died anyway. Excess mortality provides a far better gauge of the pandemic’s impact.
Estimates of excess mortality for 26 European countries are provided by researchers at EuroMOMO. The chart below plots excess mortality z-scores (numbers of standard deviations above or below the average) from week 1 of 2020 to week 27 of 2021. I’ve omitted the last three weeks of data, as these are subject to revision.
The first and second wave peaks are clearly visible: the former can be seen at week 14 of 2020, and the latter at week 3 of 2021. By comparison, the peak of the third wave (at week 16 of 2021) is barely noticeable.
It does technically rise above the red line, which the researchers oddly classify as a “substantial increase”. However, increases of this magnitude are seen every few months going all the way back to 2017. Hence the third peak cannot be regarded as a major epidemic wave.
Part of the difference between the two charts may be due to the composition of countries. For example, EuroMOMO does not cover Poland, Romania or Czechia. Having said that, the countries it does include make up the vast majority of Europe’s population, so this probably can’t account for much.
The EuroMOMO analysis indicates that Europe has seen two mortality peaks, not three. In terms of excess mortality, the third wave was just a blip.