HEALTH: Spain no longer gives daily counts of its coronavirus Covid-19 patients
Spain has been “freezing” for days its total number of coronavirus deaths, thus leaving room for doubt about the development of the epidemic in one of the countries most bereaved by Covid-19. Since June 7th, the death counter has been stopped at 27,136.
And the Department of Health chief epidemiologist Fernando Simon, who reports on the situation on a daily basis, himself acknowledged that departmental newsletters have been causing “confusion” and “stupor” since methods of counting cases and deaths were changed on May 25. Until then, while the epidemic was in sharp decline, the ministry reported 50 to 100 new deaths daily. But since this change of method, the figure has dropped to less than five, or even no deaths for several days.
A situation which led the head of government, the socialist Pedro Sanchez, to congratulate himself before the deputies that Spain has arrived at “zero death”. In doing so, he gave ammunition to the right and far-right opposition, which accuses the executive of hiding the real number of dead.
The “major danger is to communicate and transmit the idea that the epidemic is over, while the virus is present in our country, although at a lower level”, warns Salvador Macip, professor of Health Sciences at the Open University of Catalonia.
“Source of disinformation”
Fernando Simon argued that the new system made it possible to detect outbreaks of contagion more quickly if the epidemic resumed. The regions responsible for health provide the data that the government compiles, but must now inform cases individually and with a precise date, and no longer group them as before. Dr Simon acknowledged that the total death toll had been “frozen” due to “discrepancies” in the figures, which he said were notably due to delays in some areas.
The overall assessment, therefore, remains unchanged while “the regions review the death data (…) to be able to assign them a date” and thus provide a reliable historical series, he explained.
Some regions assured that they did provide this data, but that it was not included in the balance sheets. This is the case of Andalusia – governed by the right – whose head of health, Jesus Aguirre, accused the government of “totally disrespecting the deceased” by giving “lower figures” to those provided by his region.
The new system “places too much importance on reporting yesterday’s data”, so that if it is sent too late by the regions, it will not be counted in the total, notes Kiko Llaneras, data analyst at the daily El Pais. It has become “a great source of disinformation” and “in terms of communication, it has disturbed the whole debate,” he notes.
The situation was further complicated when the National Institute of Statistics and a public research organization announced in late May that the country had recorded excess mortality of 43,000 deaths since mid-March compared to the average of the past ten years. The opposition immediately accused the government of downplaying the balance sheet.
The latter argues that these figures include people who did not die from Covid-19 or suspected cases of coronavirus which could not be confirmed by PCR tests, rare at the start of the epidemic in Spain. “It is normal that the number of deaths (from coronavirus) does not correspond to the excess mortality,” says Ildefonso Hernandez, spokesperson for the Spanish Society of Public Health, who explains that this also occurs during epidemics of influenza or heatwave episodes.
“Is the government hiding the dead under the carpet? The answer is no, in my opinion. Does the government communicate clearly? Neither either, ”concludes Mr Llaneras. “One of the fundamental problems is that the management of information and the communication of data on the epidemic has not been clear enough.”