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Is the coronavirus epidemic worse in Brazil or in the UK?

Discussion: Brazil is certainly suffering terribly, but is the UK's mortality rate higher?

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International comparisons of Covid-19 infections and fatalities are fraught with difficulty. Under-reporting, different definitions and different time periods all affect the data. Sue Branford brings together contrasting views, from UCL Institute of the Americas, from Birmingham academic Andrew Nickson and from LAB’s Brazil correspondent Jan Rocha. Join the discussion on Facebook.

Main image: ‘Which end of the rope are you holding?’ Image: ReportsHealthcare.com


On 15 March UCL’s Institute of the Americas in London will hold a discussion on Coronavirus in Brazil. The introduction to this event states:

Brazil currently has the second highest COVID-related death toll in the world, behind only the United States. Circumstances are so bleak that many hospitals lack even basic medical supplies as a new, more contagious variant sweeps through Latin America’s largest nation.

While this is undoubtedly true, Andrew Nickson, from the University of Birmingham, commented:

It is worth pointing out that although Brazil has the second highest Covid death toll in the world after the USA, the UK death rate (per 100,000 population) is actually 56% higher than that of Brazil.  A few days ago (25 February), Brazil passed the 250,000 mark at virtually the same time that the UK is passing the 125,000 mark (expected on 2 March). But although Brazil has twice the number of Covid deaths, its population (212 million) is actually 3.12 times that of the UK (68 million). Hence the Covid death rate in the UK is 184 per 100,000, which is 56% higher than that of Brazil, at 118 per 100,000 population. This has hardly been reported in the UK news media.

So, it seems, that, like so much else in this pandemic, the truth about Covid in Brazil is disputed.

Jan Rocha, the LAB contributor and former BBC correspondent, living in Brazil responded firmly to Andrew’s comments:

The situation is catastrophic, and the hospitals are on the brink of collapse, or have collapsed, all over Brazil, not just in the North but in the South too.

The daily number of deaths is over 1,000 a day, and has been for more than a month. Vaccination is very slow – just 6 million so far – because there aren’t enough vaccines yet.

Everything is made worse by the behaviour of the genocidal politician in power in Brasilia, who is still denying the seriousness of the situation, encouraging crowds, preaching against masks and lockdowns, even threatening state governments who encourage these practices, withholding funding and promoting useless treatments (the latest a nasal spray from Israel, tested on 30 people). 

There has not been a single public campaign by the Health Ministry to encourage mask wearing, social distancing, vaccination. Over 250,000 have died so far, and Bolsonarosays, well, everyone has to die one day. Doctors’ associations have belatedly begun to speak up, but still there have not been widespread protests.

So the death rate might look good compared with UK, but if things continue as they are  this could well change, with some even forecasting that Brazil’s final total death count in the pandemic could reach 750,000 1)Correction: Jan Rocha asked us to make clear that the 750,000 total is for the entire pandemic, not just the present year.. After all, a University of São Paulo study, that Eliane Brum reported on, and I cited in a LAB blog, found the government’s aim was to spread the virus, not contain it. And this is what is happening. Brazil is once again rowing against the tide of the rest of the world.

So how do we reconcile the two views? Many Brazilians are clearly dying of Covid at the moment. On 27 February an average of 1,180 deaths per day were reported for the previous seven days, which was an all-time record for the country. Until then the highest number had been 1,105 deaths on 14 February 2020, also an average for the previous seven days.

In contrast, in the UK the highest average number of deaths for the previous seven days was recorded on 18 January 2021 – 1,279 people. If one takes into account the population difference, this confirms what Andrew Nickson says – a significantly higher per capita death rate in the UK.

But, of course, there are “lies, damned lies, and statistics”. Do these figures mean that the pandemic has been worse in the UK than in Brazil? Not necessarily – there is probably significant underreporting in Brazil, because of the isolation of many regions, and probably over-reporting in the UK, as a result of this controversial rule that the death of anyone who has tested positive for the virus over the previous 28 days, is registered as a Covid death.

Even so, it seems likely that more Covid deaths per capita have occurred in the UK than in Brazil. But this could change.

In Britain, the number of cases and new fatalities is currently falling rapidly. Fingers crossed, this will continue. While few medical experts expect it to die out entirely, it may bounce along at a low and relatively manageable level, at least until the autumn.

In Brazil, there has been no sign of abatement yet. If the prediction of 750,000 deaths this year is correct, that means an average of 2,054 deaths a day – double the current level. If this happens, Brazil will buck the global trend – by 21 February global deaths from Covid had fallen for the third consecutive week.

What is clear Is that both the UK and Brazil have been severely affected by the pandemic and will continue to be so. According to the OECD, UK output fell by 9% in 2020 and “the UK is set to suffer more economic pain from the coronavirus pandemic than any other leading economy, apart from Argentina”. While the world economy is expected to have recovered lost output by the end of 2021, “Britain’s economy would still be 6.4% smaller”.

According to the OECD, Brazil’s GDP fell by 5% in 2020, largely because of the pandemic. This will mean that GDP will only be back to its end of 2019 level by the end of 2022 — a dismal prospect for a developing country like Brazil. But what the statistics don’t show is the human cost of the pandemic. Because so many more people live close to the breadline in Brazil, far more people than in the UK will have suffered hardship as a result of a pandemic whose economic side effects threatens not just their livelihoods, but their lives. And then there is the heavy cost borne by the country’s indigenous peoples, who have been disproportionately affected. And when an indigenous elder dies, so too does part of that people’s history.


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References

References
1 Correction: Jan Rocha asked us to make clear that the 750,000 total is for the entire pandemic, not just the present year.

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