A TV broadcaster has claimed only 83 Australians have been killed solely by COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, creating a social media frenzy that included demands for the imprisonment of the prime minister and state premiers.
But the claim is wrong – in fact, the figure of 83 refers to people who had the coronavirus when they died but their death was caused by something else.
Broadcaster Paul Murray was referencing Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) data on COVID-19 deaths recorded in Australia up until January 31 on his program on Sky News Australia. During his show on February 15, Mr Murray walks viewers through the report’s findings in a bid to “put it in perspective”.
“To quote from the Bureau of Statistics today: ‘chronic cardiac conditions were the most common pre-existing chronic condition for those who had COVID-19 certified as an underlying cause of death.’ So, how many people have actually died not with but exclusively from COVID in Australia in the past couple of years? It is 83,” he says (audio mark 59min 18sec).
A screen grab from Mr Murray’s program highlighting the incorrectly explained 83 figure was shared on social media, including this Instagram post. “COVID facts, not fear, Let’s have some perspective. Actual number killed only by COVID: 83,” reads the text in the image. The claim also showed up on Twitter (here, here and here), Facebook (here) and TikTok (here and here).
But according to the ABS report, also released on February 15, the number of deaths where COVID alone was reported on the death certificate is 220.
Since the beginning of the pandemic to January 31, there were 2,519 deaths directly due to acute COVID infection, the report said.
There were also 20 deaths that were due to long term effects of COVID, and 17 deaths certified as being due to suspected COVID (but not confirmed in a lab at the time of certification). That’s a total of 2,556 deaths considered to be “due to COVID-19”.
A spokesman for the ABS confirmed to AAP FactCheck via email that the mortality statistics show that “where COVID-19 was listed as a cause on the certificate (2,639 in the article), 83 of these were not due to the virus itself but another condition”. An example of “another condition” might be late stage cancer, he said.
There are complexities to how deaths from COVID are reported in Australia that are explained in this Conversation article. AAP FactCheck has previously debunked false claims on the reporting of COVID deaths here and here.
Despite the reporting nuances, epidemiologist Gideon Meyerowitz-Katz from University of Wollongong says the claim that only 83 Australians have been killed solely by COVID is “definitely wrong”.
“What the ABS report shows is that there were 2,556 deaths caused by COVID-19 in Australia based on death certificates in this time period, with an additional 83 deaths that were likely caused by non-COVID-19 factors but where the person was infected with COVID-19 at the time of their death,” he told AAP FactCheck in an email.
“To put this another way, 96.9 per cent of COVID-19 deaths reported to the ABS (which means finalised through jurisdictional registries of Births, Deaths and Marriages) were shown to have been directly caused by COVID-19 in this review.”
Annette Dobson, a professor of biostatistics at the University of Queensland, agreed the claim was “wrong”.
“As you can see from the ABS report most deaths occur in the elderly. These people, especially those in aged care, are likely to have multiple conditions and the doctor completing the death certificate usually mentions those that may have contributed to the death” Prof Dobson told AAP FactCheck in an email.
“The international way of recording deaths was designed a long time ago when most deaths were likely to be clearly due to a single cause, such as an infectious disease or a heart attack. This system doesn’t cope well with the current situation among elderly people where many conditions may have contributed to the death.”
Sky News Australia did not respond to a request for comment on Mr Murray’s claim.
The claim that only 83 people died solely of COVID since the start of the pandemic is an incorrect misreading of the data in the ABS report. The figure of 83 refers to COVID related deaths where the person’s death was not due to the virus but another condition, the ABS confirmed.
False – The claim is inaccurate.