Spain records 493,000 deaths in 2020, the highest number since the Civil War

According to the National Statistics Institute, Madrid had the worst excess mortality rate, with 19,418 more fatalities last year than in 2019

The intensive care unit at a hospital in Barcelona last October.
The intensive care unit at a hospital in Barcelona last October.Albert Garcia (EL PAÍS)
Emilio Sánchez Hidalgo

The coronavirus pandemic has caused the greatest demographic crisis in Spain since the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). According to provisional data published Thursday by the National Statistics Institute (INE), 492,930 people died in Spain in 2020, when the country was deep in the grips of the health crisis. This is the highest number since the historical record began in 1941 – two years after the end of the Civil War. In total, 74,227 more deaths were recorded in 2020 than in 2019, a rise of 17.73%.

Last year also saw the lowest number of births on record. A total of 339,206 children were born in 2020, 21,411 fewer than the previous year. This is the biggest drop recorded since 2013. The rate of natural increase – the difference between the number of births and deaths – was also the lowest on record: there were 153,167 more deaths than births in 2020, triple the number of 2019. This is not an exact figure as the INE data does not include the births and deaths of non-residents.

According to Diego Ramiro, the director of the Institute of Economy, Geography and Demography and Spain’s National Research Council (CSIC), “this date was to be expected in the pandemic situation we have lived through. This crisis has affected the main variables that configure a population.” In addition to the record high deaths and record low births, Ramiro pointed out that the average age of mothers rose to 32.3, the highest of the historic series.

Spain recorded fewer deaths in January and February in 2020 than in 2019. But this trend changed dramatically when the pandemic hit the country in March. In that month alone, there were 58,124 deaths, compared to 37,058 in March 2019. But the biggest difference was in April, when the pandemic was at its peak and up to 900 Covid-19 deaths were reported in a single day. A total of 60,951 people died in April 2020, a rise of 78.21% on the number in 2019.

According to the official data from the Spanish Health Ministry, 50,837 people died from Covid-19 in 2020. This is far from the total number of fatalities for 2020: 492,930. The real Covid-19 death toll is likely to be much higher as the official count only includes victims who died after testing positive for the virus. During the first wave, for example, thousands of people died before being tested, meaning they were not included in the total. This does not mean that all the excess deaths recorded in the INE data are solely Covid-19 victims: some may be the results of illnesses that went untreated due to the pandemic, which overwhelmed Spain’s hospitals and primary healthcare centers.

“The pandemic is the principal cause of the rise in mortality, but at the moment we do not have a reliable picture of which deaths were due to Covid-19 and which were due to other causes,” explained Joaquín Recaño, a professor at Barcelona University and researcher at the Demographic Studies Center. But he added the mortality rate is likely to fall in 2021: “Many seniors who died from Covid-19 in 2020 are not going to die in the next few years. In other words, the virus has anticipated the death of elderly people, so the normal thing would be for there to not be such a high mortality rate.”

Of Spain’s 17 regions, Madrid recorded the highest excess-mortality rate, with 19,418 more deaths in 2020 than in 2019, a rise of 41.17%. Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León followed Madrid, with increases of 32.33% and 25.97%, respectively. The lowest rises were reported by the Canary Islands (4.19%), Galicia (4.96%) and Murcia (5.78%).

Madrid, however, was not the region with the lowest rate of natural increase, given it recorded more births than other areas. In this case, it was Castilla y León, which recorded 22,543 more deaths than births in 2020. It was followed by Catalonia (21,659) and Galicia (17,610), which like Castilla y León also has an aging population. In the past 20 years, the average age in Spain has risen by four years and is now at 43.58. In 2020, the over-60 population represented 26.6% of the Spanish population, up from 21.6% in 2000.

Falling birth rate

The number of births in Spain has now been falling since 2015. In 2020, the birth rate dropped 5.94% upon 2019 figures – the largest fall in nearly a decade. All of Spain’s regions recorded fewer births in 2020 than in 2019, and the country is far from where it was in 2008, when there were 519,779 births – nearly 200,000 more than last year. The impact of the pandemic, however, will be better reflected in the first quarter of 2021.

“A considerable fall in birth rate can be expected,” said Recaño. “In November and December, the months most affected by the pandemic, the birth rate fell 10% and 21% respectively, with respect to 2019, when the average national drop is 6%.”

This fall has been attributed to the economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis, which led to many workers losing their jobs or being placed on the government’s ERTE furlough scheme.

“Being on an ERTE or faced with uncertainty over the future, couples do not feel encouraged to have children. This means they are waiting until the final years of their reproductive age,” explained Ramiro.

The number of marriages also fell to the lowest number on record in 2020. Last, there were 90,416 marriages – nearly half the number in 2019. This is largely due to the coronavirus restrictions that limited the number of wedding guests in a bid to control the spread of the virus.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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