Just how many people have died of COVID-19, as opposed to having died with the virus? It is a poignant question, especially after it was revealed that several states had been counting a COVID death as anyone who died after testing positive for the virus, even if they swiftly recovered and went on to die of some other cause, like under a proverbial bus. A study by the health authorities in the Östergötland region of south-eastern Sweden aims to answer the question.

The study looks at the cases of 122 people who have died in the region outside of a hospital setting — either at home or in accommodation for the elderly — and whose deaths were attributed to COVID-19. Half of this group were aged 88 or over. Of the 122 cases, 111 were judged to have extensive co-morbidities (the presence of one or more additional conditions) and 11 had moderate co-morbidities. Not one of those who died, in other words, were in good health. In only 15 percent of cases was COVID-19 judged to be the direct cause of death. COVID-19 was a contributory cause in 70 percent of cases, and in the remaining 15 percent death was judged to have been caused by another underlying cause — most often heart disease. The study can be read here, in Swedish.

Debate continues to rage over the rights and wrongs of the Swedish approach to COVID-19 — whether the refusal to lock down helped stave off economic disaster, or whether it led to thousands of needless deaths; whether it helped Swedes gain a degree of herd immunity to COVID-19, or whether the country remains as exposed to a second wave of the disease as any other nation. The analysis in Östergötland covers a small sample of people but provides some enlightenment on the nature of the deaths recorded by Sweden during the epidemic. It confirms what has been evident elsewhere: many of those recorded as dying of the virus already had short life expectancies due to underlying health conditions, and a small percentage of those deaths had nothing to do with COVID at all — the death would have occurred anyway from another illness, whether the deceased had contracted the virus or not.

This article was originally published onThe Spectator’s UK website.