The difficult count of coronavirus deaths

The daily counting of the Covid-19’s deaths, the official number of which has exceeded 200,000, is a delicate exercise, the collection of data in real time being only fragmented and the methods varying depending on the country.

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Hospitals and retirement homes

Spain, Germany, Luxembourg and South Korea account for all deaths of people who test positive for Covid-19, whether in or out of the hospital. In Belgium, where retirement homes officially account for more than half of the fatal cases linked to this disease, the figures include the deaths of victims of the coronavirus who were not tested but suspected of having been affected.

French figures also list deaths in retirement homes (more than a third of the total).But other countries, like Iran and China, only report hospital deaths in their daily reports.

This is also the case in the United Kingdom. More complete figures are published every week by the National Bureau of Statistics, but with a latency of ten days and they do not take into account Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In Italy, the officially most bereaved country in Europe, not all deaths in retirement homes are taken into account. If a large epidemic focus is detected in an establishment, tests are carried out and deaths counted, but if an establishment is less affected, it is likely that this will not be the case, explains Civil Protection.

In the United States, which officially displays the heaviest death toll in the world (more than 50,000), the deaths taken into account vary from one State to another: that of New York includes retirement homes, California no.

Covid-19 or some other disease? 

Some countries, such as South Korea, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, Luxembourg and Belgium, include in their figures all the people who tested positive for coronavirus (or in certain countries suspected of have been), even those who died from complications of a preexisting disease. Others are more selective.

In Iran, patients tested positive but dying from another “serious respiratory illness” are excluded from the assessments.

In the United States, testimonies of people whose relatives died, officially of pneumonia, came up before the tests were available.

In Germany, statistics do not distinguish between people whose deaths were directly caused by Covid-19 and those who may have died from a preexisting disease or from two diseases combined. This was a subject of controversy between the national institute responsible for monitoring epidemics and certain regions which presented lower assessments because they carried out autopsies in order to determine the precise origin of death.

Lack of tests and deadlines

During an epidemic, “the ascent and the processing of information, even accelerated, are done with a few days of delay and do not cover all the deaths. It takes several weeks or several months to be able to count down precisely all the dead”, estimated at the beginning of April Gilles Pison and France Meslé, demographers at the French Institute for Demographic Studies (INED).

In the United States, even if there is no test, death certificates must state whether Covid-19 is the “probable” cause of death, but these certificates take time to ascend and cannot be taken into account for real-time reports.

Due to lack of tests, Spain performs very few post-mortem screenings. Thus, if a person has not been tested before dying, he is not counted by the health authorities. Judicial data, which is less restrictive, suggests a much better balance sheet: for example, the Superior Court of Castile-La Mancha recorded in March 1,921 death certificates “due to Covid or to a suspicion of Covid”, that is to say almost three times more than the 708 dead (Covid-19 positive) listed on March 31 by health authorities.

Another illustration: in Bergamo, in Lombardy, in the north of Italy, were recorded, during the first fortnight of March, 108 more deaths (+ 193%) than a year earlier … but only 31 deaths linked to Covid-19.

China and Iran accused of lying

Sometimes the very sincerity of the authorities is called into question.

In Iran, official reports have been challenged, particularly at the start of the epidemic, by provincial officials and parliamentarians. Outside of this country, Washington, in particular, reproached Tehran for making up its figures.

China, criticized by several Western officials for its management of the crisis, revised upwards, by almost 40%, the death toll on April 17. The city of Wuhan, the cradle of the pandemic, recorded an additional 1,300 deaths, explaining that some patients had died at home because they could not be treated by hospitals.

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