Coronavirus
A coronavirus burial in Mexico. A coronavirus burial in Mexico.

Mexico vastly underestimating virus death toll, studies show

More studies indicate coronavirus deaths are far higher than official numbers show

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Mexico has been grossly underestimating its Covid-19 death toll, according to a growing number of independent studies suggesting there have been tens of thousands of deaths in excess of the official count, casting doubt on President López Obrador’s insistence that the pandemic has been tamed.

As of Friday, Mexico has officially reported 283,511 infections and 29,189 deaths among its 129 million population. But the true picture may be far worse.

One study by independent researchers Mario Romero and Laurianne Despeghel shows at least 3.5 times more deaths in Mexico City than the official data, an undercount of some 22,705 deaths in the capital alone.

In another, Raúl Rojas, a Mexican professor of artificial intelligence at Berlin University, calculated that Mexico could have as many as 6 million cases and nearly 78,000 deaths — almost three times the official count.

“I find it incredible that instead of giving numbers, they’re hiding them to conceal the seriousness of the situation,” he said.

More than half the world’s average daily deaths from the virus are now in Latin America, making it one of the global centers for Covid-19. Brazil has the world’s highest official number of daily deaths, but with an average of 4.7 new deaths per 1 million people in the last week, Mexico and Brazil are neck and neck in proportion to population.

Mexico is only counting cases and deaths that have been confirmed by a laboratory — and only 610,495 people have been tested. In part because of the low level of testing, some 67% of tests come back positive — an indication that many more cases are being missed.

Hugo López-Gatell, the deputy minister of health and coronavirus czar, said mass testing would be a waste of time and money, and the World Health Organization’s appeal to “test, test, test” had been understood in a “deformed, erroneous and distorted” way.

But without robust testing and tracking, experts fear Mexico will struggle to tame any new outbreaks as Latin America’s second-biggest economy reopens.

López-Gatell acknowledged in an interview with the Washington Post that total deaths in Mexico city from March to May were triple the usual level, according to an official but as yet unpublished study. The Financial Times’ requests for an interview have not been granted.

Until that study is published, or official mortality data is released next year, the closest estimates available come from Romero, a software developer and data analyst, and Despeghel, a consultant in economics.

raul rojas
Rojas: ‘I find it incredible that instead of giving numbers, they’re hiding them to conceal the seriousness of the situation.’

They tallied the number of death certificates issued in Mexico City since the start of the pandemic, regardless of the cause of death, and found a 126% increase in the past three months compared with the average for the same period from 2016-18. Official data on total deaths in 2019 is not yet available.

According to their latest count, published in the news magazine Nexos on July 3, there were 22,705 excess deaths in the capital by the end of June. Officially, Mexico City has confirmed 6,642 deaths from coronavirus.

“In the last week, we had 104% excess mortality — twice as many people than normal died in Mexico City,” said Despeghel. That compared with as much as 219% five weeks ago. “It’s coming down, but it’s still high.”

In Mexico City, excess deaths have risen more slowly than in some cities, such as New York, but “here it’s taking longer to taper,” said Romero.

Since countries’ methodologies for reporting Covid-19 fatalities differ widely. David Spiegelhalter, professor of the public understanding of risk at Cambridge University in the U.K., describes tracking excess deaths as “the only unbiased comparison you can make between different countries.”

López Obrador, who initially minimized the risk from Covid-19 and refuses to wear a face mask, now insists Mexico is past the worst — even as the number of cases keeps rising.

Officials have denied hiding the figures, but data has been uploaded to civil registry websites slowly and in the state of México a site publishing similar data was taken down altogether, Despeghel and Romero said.

In his study, Rojas noticed that official national statistics in June attributed 40% more deaths to May than had been reported at the time. To correct for administrative delays, he calculated that Mexico’s death toll needed to be multiplied by 1.4.

Although in the capital there appear to be at least three times more deaths than usual, he used the conservative assumption that nationwide figures were under-reported by 50%.

Correcting both for delays in reporting and under-registration, that implied 77,753 deaths in the whole country, he said. Assuming a 2% mortality rate, that meant as many as 6 million infections.

Romero and Despeghel’s findings chime with a separate analysis of death certificates from May by Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI), a think tank. It found nearly four times more deaths in the capital attributed to coronavirus than in official data.

Two other studies, tracking calls to emergency services, also challenge the official count. In Tijuana, UCLA and Mexican academics with the Red Cross found 195 excess out-of-hospital deaths between mid-April and mid-May, versus eight in the official tally.

In Mexico City, Quinto Elemento Lab, an investigative journalism non-profit body, found that 1,179 people had died at home or outside hospitals of coronavirus-linked conditions between March 23 and May 27, while just 329 were reported officially.

At a news conference on Thursday night, López-Gatell acknowledged the same situation with excess deaths “is happening all over the country … We’re not hiding anything.”

He has already said that official data showed that infections “hit a peak then unfortunately continued,” exceeding official predictions in several cities. He now says the pandemic could last until October.

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