Spain accused of hiding its true death toll as it asks tourists to come back

James Badcock
Mortuary service workers carry the coffin of the last COVID-19 victim stored at an underground parking garage that was turned into a morgue, at the Collserola funeral home in Barcelona.   - Emilio Morenatti/AP 

Spain’s government has been accused of hiding the death toll from coronavirus amid changes made to its method of reporting new cases that saw the country’s fatality toll plummet from around 50 per day last week to zero on both Monday and Tuesday.

The accusations of undercounting the impact of Covid-19 come as Spain announces plans to welcome international tourists back to the country from July 1, or possibly during the second half of June.

A change in the statistical methodology imposed by Spain’s health ministry on the regional authorities who run the country’s hospitals took effect last week, and among the bizarre results of the new system was the disappearance of 2,000 Covid-19 deaths to bring the national total down to just over 27,000.    

Speaking in Congress, opposition Popular Party leader Pablo Casado said the government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was lying about what he said was actually the worst coronavirus death rate in the world.

“You are hiding dead to conceal your incompetence,” Mr Casado charged, citing an excess death number of 43,000 in Spain since March, as well as an estimate by the association of Spanish funeral companies of more than 44,000 dead during the epidemic.

The instructions given out to regional health authorities last month were to refine their statistical records by individualising each new registration to avoid duplication, as well as only publishing deaths that occurred in the past 24 hours.

But the result has led to a series of discrepancies and statistical results described as “nonsense” by statistician and political analyst Kiko Llaneras.

“It is useful that the date of each death is known, but why stop informing about the total number of deaths registered?” Mr Llaneras asked in a column in the newspaper El País.

The result, Mr Llaneras said, is that Spain’s official death total, which rose by five on Thursday to 27,133, is now a false statistic. “The figure is an underestimate because today we only know a portion of yesterday’s deaths because of delays.”

Spanish Health Minister Salvador Illa said the change in methodology was due to the importance of focusing on new cases for rapid detection of fresh outbreaks now that the level of contagion was much lower than at the height of the epidemic.

“There may be, and I am sure there is, some mistakes,” Mr Illa admitted.