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Fewer deaths in 2020 despite the pandemic

Fewer deaths in 2020 despite the pandemic

Glenn takes a look at the recently released ABS death statistics for 2020 – and finds a cheerier tale than you may expect.


Deaths statistics are probably not most cheerful of datasets to look at but they are one of the key indicators that inform our demographics and our population totals. (The population will grow as long as there are more births than deaths, for instance, in the absence of migration.) Over the last year, the ABS has been releasing provisional mortality statistics for Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic, so we’ve sort of had a sneak preview. This week saw the annual publication of death counts – and it is largely a good news story.

Fewer deaths in 2020

While many countries recorded “excess mortality” due to COVID-19, Australia recorded a significant drop in the number of deaths. For the calendar year of 2020, 161,300 deaths were registered in Australia, down by over 8,000 from 2019 and consistent with prior years – despite a higher population and a global pandemic. The age-standardised death rate was 4.9 per 1,000 people (in a standard population), a big drop from 5.3 the year before. In a pandemic year, our death rate in Australia fell substantially. This is by far the lowest death rate ever recorded in Australia. We’re living longer and less likely to die from a variety of causes. (Exact life expectancy data will be out in November.) It’s worth just thinking about this one figure and letting it sink in.

The ABS have a chart from the page linked above, and I’ve reproduced it here without alteration. It tells the story over time very well.

Standardised-death-rates-1980-to-2020a

It’s worth mentioning that males consistently have a higher death rate and lower life expectancy than females, and this has always been the case. However, the graph shows this gap narrowing substantially over the past 40 years.

Causes of death

The ABS has also released “Causes of Death” data for 2020. I won’t go into this in detail here – it’s not light reading – but I’ve pulled out a few key points about last year’s causes.

  • COVID-19 was highlighted by the ABS due to its importance globally, but it was only the 38th leading cause of death in Australia for the year, with 898 total deaths attributed.
  • The top 5 causes of death in Australia were unchanged from the previous year: heart disease, dementia/Alzheimer’s, cerebrovascular diseases (largely stroke), lung cancer and chronic lower respiratory diseases.
  • These top 5 account for about a third of all deaths, but all five showed declines in deaths for 2020 compared to the previous year.
  • There is always a focus on suicide (“Intentional self-harm”), the 15th leading cause of death. For 2020 it has been well noted in various forums already that suicides declined in 2020. 3,139 were recorded, the lowest number since 2016. Suicide is heavily skewed towards males, who made up 76% of deaths in this category.
  • Due to lockdowns and border closures, deaths from respiratory diseases fell by almost a quarter in 2020. Only 55 people died from the ‘flu, compared to 1,080 in 2019.

So generally, it would appear that the measures taken to keep Australia’s population safe from COVID-19 have also resulted in a significantly lower death rate from many other causes for 2020. And the rate of death long term continues to decline substantially – as I’ve said before – we live in one of the safest places in the world at the safest time in all of human history.


While this is “good news”, it’s still a grim topic. If you or anyone you know needs help:

Glenn - The Census Expert

Glenn is our resident Census expert. After ten years working at the ABS, Glenn's deep knowledge of the Census has been a crucial input in the development of our community profiles. These tools help everyday people uncover the rich and important stories about our communities that are often hidden deep in the Census data. Glenn is also our most prolific blogger - if you're reading this, you've just finished reading one of his blogs. Take a quick look at the front page of our blog and you'll no doubt find more of Glenn's latest work. As a client manager, Glenn travels the country giving sought-after briefings to councils and communities (these are also great opportunities for Glenn to tend to his rankings in Geolocation games such as Munzee and Geocaching).

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