Mexico Vastly Underestimating Virus Death Toll

Mexico Vastly Underestimating Virus Death Toll

Studies say Tens of thousands of deaths may have been missed in the official statistics. Mexico has officially reported 283,511 infections and 29,189 deaths among its 129m population.

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 Andrés Manuel 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 129m 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 6m 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 centres for Covid-19. Brazil has the world’s highest official number of daily deaths, but with an average of 4.7 new deaths per 1m 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 per cent of tests come back positive — an indication that many more cases are being missed. A patient is treated with oxygen in a Covid-19 hospital in Naucalpan © Rebecca Blackwell/AP Hugo López-Gatell, the health under-secretary and coronavirus tsar, said mass testing would be a waste of time and money, and the World Health Organisation’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.

Dr 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 FT’s 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 Ms Romero, a software developer and data analyst, and Ms Despeghel, a consultant in economics. 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 per cent 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 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 per cent excess mortality — twice as many people than normal died in Mexico City,” said Ms Despeghel. That compared with as much as 219 per cent 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 Mr Romero.