ANALYSIS: Can Spain’s official coronavirus death toll be trusted?

ANALYSIS: Can Spain’s official coronavirus death toll be trusted?
Photo: AFP
This week we reported the positive news that Spain’s health ministry had recorded zero coronavirus deaths in a 24 hour period for the first time since early March. Then the same news again the next day.

But even as he announced the good news, Fernando Simon, who is the head of the Coordination Centre for Health Alerts and Emergencies and the spokesman who gives the daily press conference, warned that there might be “discrepancies” in the figures.

For the Health Ministry which collects the data on deaths from regional health authorities had once again changed the criteria and method of registering those who had officially died of covid-19.

Just over a week earlier,  Spain's government had revised downward the country's death toll from the coronavirus by nearly 2,000, insisting that the new system of gathering data had allowed them to identify cases that were counted twice and exclude deaths wrongly attributed to the virus.

Officially Spain has recorded a total of 27,127 deaths from the virus, a figure that still makes it one of the worst-hit countries in the world, but shows fewer deaths than Italy and the UK.

However, new data released on Wednesday by Spain’s National Statistics Institute (INE) tells a different story.

That data reveals that the number of deaths in Spain was in fact 24 percent higher between January and the end of May than the same period last year.

And if you narrow it down to the week around the date Spain’s reached its peak on April 2nd when 950 daily coronavirus deaths were recorded, it shows an increase of around 154 percent on the same week in 2019..

Totting up the deaths recorded at civil registries across Spain shows that in fact 43,945 more deaths occurred between January 1 and May 24 than in 2019; a discrepancy of 17,000 when compared to the official coronavirus death toll.

The problem lies in the fact that Spain’s official death toll only includes those who died after testing positive for covid-19 and disregards all the people who may have perished from the virus without being tested.

A huge number of deaths occurred in elderly residential centres where testing was not widespread even in those who showed symptoms of covid-19.

The INE figures showed that the biggest leap in deaths came in the over 90 age group with 27.3 percent more recorded (12,824 deaths) than in the same period in 2019, while there was a 25 percent increase (10,006 more deaths) of those aged between 85 and 89.

 

But the discrepancy caused by the method of recording virus victims is unlikely to be isolated to Spain. 

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez explained in parliament on Wednesday that Spain was just following official WHO guidelines when it came to recording its coronavirus dead. 

“This figure counts the deceased who were tested and whose tests came back positive,” he insisted.


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