Death claims triple, suicides surge in SA during Covid

Suicides have been climbing steadily in South Africa for a number of years: Discovery Life CEO.
Image: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

The value of death claims almost tripled and suicides rose 18% last year as South Africa was battered by coronavirus infections, Discovery Life said, citing data from its clients.

In early 2021, South Africa grappled with the later stages of a beta variant-driven wave of Covid-19 infections. It was hit by the delta variant in mid-year and omicron toward the end of the year.

“It was completely unprecedented,” Discovery Life’s Deputy Chief Executive Officer Gareth Friedlander said in an interview on Thursday.

“Add all causes of death together – that’s your cancers, motor-vehicle accidents, heart attacks, strokes – add them all together and it’s still 50% less than the Covid-death claims.”

The data from the Johannesburg-based life insurer, which has more than 600 000 clients, is another indication of how hard South Africa has been hit by the pandemic. While official deaths from Covid nationally are just over 100 000, excess-death data, which measures mortality against historical statistics, shows more than 300 000 people – or one in 500 South Africans – died from the disease.

During 2021, Discovery Life paid out R9.1 billion on more than 10 000 life claims, of which R6.46 billion was paid in coronavirus-related claims. In total 6.31 million people have officially died from Covid-19 across the world, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

Covid-19 accounted for 49% of female deaths and 54% of male deaths among the claims made, according to a Discovery Life presentation. Four-fifths of intensive-care-related payments were due to the coronavirus.

While suicides also increased during the pandemic, as economic hardship surged and repeated lockdowns isolated people, they have been climbing steadily in South Africa for a number of years, Friedlander said.

“It was there pre-Covid and I think Covid might have exacerbated it,” he said. “Our feeling is that we are not even seeing the full impact.”

Discovery Life has a 25% share of the so-called retail-affluent market, which covers policies offered to wealthier people. The company is a unit of Discovery Ltd., which offers services ranging from health and car insurance to bank accounts.

Death-claim numbers are now subsiding because of a milder variant of the disease, higher vaccination rates and increasing natural protection from prior infections. Still, Friedlander said, the numbers are unlikely to fall to pre-pandemic levels as Covid-19 infections will persist.

“My sense is that when you look at the statistics is that you are unlikely to go back to pre-pandemic levels,” with the disease continuing to add to death claims, he said.

© 2022 Bloomberg

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