Peru adjusts COVID-19 death toll, now highest per capita overall

Peru announced on Monday a sharp increase in its COVID-19 death toll, saying there have been more than 180,000 fatalities since the pandemic hit early last year, making it the country with the worst death rate per capita in the world.

The announcement was made in the presidential palace during the presentation of a report by a working group commissioned to analyse and update the death toll. The results of the study put the new toll at 180,764 in a population of about 32.6 million, compared with recent data indicating that 69,342 people had died from COVID-19.

“What is being said is that a significant number of deaths were not classified as caused by COVID-19,” Health Minister Oscar Ugarte said, adding that the criteria for assigning the new coronavirus as a cause of death were changed.

San Juan Bautista cemetery in Iquitos, Peru [File: Rodrigo Abd/AP Photo]

Ugarte said that previously only those who “had a positive diagnostic test” were considered to have died from the virus, but other criteria have since been incorporated.

Mateo Prochazka, one of the researchers, said the team used four different methods to determine cause of death.

“The first criterion is the one with the greatest certainty, the virological one, in the case of people who have a positive test, the second is the rapid test,” Prochazka reportedly said.

“We also used serological [tests] because, in the beginning of the pandemic, this system was used a lot,” he said.

“Then there are radiological and epidemiological [tests], through which there is no proof, but compatible symptoms are found,” he said, “we considered that they should be accounted for.”

Most cases per capita

The new toll from COVID-19 includes deaths reported between March 2020 and May 22 of this year. Among Latin American countries, only Brazil and Mexico have reported higher overall death tolls from the disease.

Based on population, however, Peru’s per capita death toll is now the highest in the world and now more than doubles that of Brazil, according to Johns Hopkins data.

According to the data, Hungary had the worst number of per capita COVID-19 deaths at about 300 per 100,000 people. With its updated death toll, Peru now stands at more than 500 COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people.

People waiting to receive COVID-19 vaccines during a mass vaccination program for the elderly, in Lima, Peru [File: Sebastian Castaneda/Reuters]

On Monday, the coronavirus monitoring site of Johns Hopkins University was reflecting the previous figure of just less than 70,000 deaths in Peru.

Questions about Peru’s death toll surfaced soon after the beginning of the pandemic. Scenes of cemeteries filling up with new burials and hospitals buying refrigerated containers to act as makeshift morgues suggested the situation was far worse than the official data showed.

“We think it is our duty to make public this updated information,” said Peru’s prime minister, Violeta Bermudez during the news conference.

Peru’s updated numbers are in line with so-called “excess deaths” figures, which researchers have used in Peru and other countries to measure possible undercounting.

Excess deaths measures the total number of deaths in a period of time and compares it with the same period pre-pandemic.

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