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Minas Gerais state a black hole for Covid-19 data

and . May 09, 2020
Minas Gerais state a black hole for Covid-19 data Bus terminal in Belo Horizonte. Photo: Gil Leonardi/Imprensa MG

Around the world, there is much uncertainty about the true mortality rate of Covid-19. Rates vary enormously from country to country, mainly due to the fact that infection numbers are inevitably under-reported. In Brazil, Health Minister Nelson Teich has already admitted that the country is “flying blind” through the crisis and that authorities have no idea of the percentage of citizens who have been affected by the virus. There are some figures that provide a useful illustration as to the extent of the under-reporting: cases of acute respiratory distress syndrome have skyrocketed in the country, suggesting that many of these patients may be suffering from Covid-19 instead. 

This, and the fact that a significant portion of those infected with the coronavirus remains symptomless, has led experts to estimate that Brazil’s true number of cases is over 4.2 million, instead of the official government figure of under 150,000. Inconsistency in reporting among states and municipalities is another problematic factor — the southeastern state of Minas Gerais is a prime example. 

</p> <p>With 21 million inhabitants, the state is the second-most-populous in the country, yet has recorded fewer than 3,000 Covid-19 infections — 15 times lower than neighboring state São Paulo. The lethality rate in Minas Gerais is also spectacularly low: only 4.7 per one million residents, while the northern state of Amazonas has recorded 190.7 deaths for every million.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <iframe title="Covid-19 in Minas Gerais" aria-label="Map" id="datawrapper-chart-TmCRv" src="https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/TmCRv/1/" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" style="width: 0; min-width: 100% !important; border: none;" height="511"></iframe><script type="text/javascript">!function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",(function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}}))}(); </script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>These low figures have given Governor Romeu Zema reason for celebration on Twitter. &#8220;A different government. Efficient administration. Minas Gerais has the third-lowest death rate per 100,000 people —&nbsp;87 percent below other states&#8217; average and 89 percent below the national rate,&#8221; he said.</p> <p>But Mr. Zema&#8217;s joy is displaced. Minas Gerais&#8217; low Covid-19 rate is not due to an exceptionally well-oiled isolation strategy. Instead, it is because the state is simply <a href="https://brazilian.report/latin-america/2020/03/29/low-testing-casts-doubt-over-covid-19-reality-brazil/">not testing suspected cases</a>. On May 6, over 94,000 suspected Covid-19 patients were waiting for tests — no other Brazilian state has such a low testing rate. Without diagnoses, hundreds of Minas Gerais cities could be home to the virus without knowing it. The chart below shows all of the municipalities in Minas Gerais which have suspected cases, but have yet to confirm a single coronavirus infection.&nbsp;</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <iframe title="Municipalities with suspected cases, but none confirmed" aria-label="Map" id="datawrapper-chart-Lo5mE" src="https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/Lo5mE/2/" scrolling="no" frameborder="0" style="width: 0; min-width: 100% !important; border: none;" height="511"></iframe><script type="text/javascript">!function(){"use strict";window.addEventListener("message",(function(a){if(void 0!==a.data["datawrapper-height"])for(var e in a.data["datawrapper-height"]){var t=document.getElementById("datawrapper-chart-"+e)||document.querySelector("iframe[src*='"+e+"']");t&&(t.style.height=a.data["datawrapper-height"][e]+"px")}}))}(); </script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Minas Gerais governor: &#8220;Everything under control&#8221;</h2> <p>Mr. Zema likes to say that the situation in his state is &#8220;under control&#8221; and that while under-reporting &#8220;exists, [it] is not a cause for concern.&#8221; Since the beginning of the crisis, the governor has maintained this stance, saying that mass testing —&nbsp;identified by experts as a fool-proof way to properly assess the pandemic —&nbsp;is not an option, due to &#8220;a moment of financial difficulty and the fact that test kits are not easily available.&#8221;</p> <p>State health authorities have been publishing an average of just 130 test results a day since the end of March —&nbsp;at the time, the governor himself had announced that his administration would perform 1,800 tests every day.&nbsp;</p> <p>In the chart below, we see a significant hike in diagnoses on April 18, but less than 3,000 people received test results in the two and a half weeks that followed. Meanwhile, April 18 saw the number of suspected cases rise by over 20,000 people in one day.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/2308051" data-url="https://flo.uri.sh/visualisation/2308051/embed"><script src="https://public.flourish.studio/resources/embed.js"></script></div> <p>Speaking to local news portal <em>Coronavirus-MG</em>, the <a href="http://coronavirus-mg.com.br">state government said</a> that &#8220;the percentage of positives among tested patients is 13.5 percent, which allows us to infer that the number of positives among all cases [including suspected ones] is similar.&#8221; However, journalists Cristiano Martins and Ígor Passarini reported that the real rate of positives is 23.5 percent. Meaning that, by the state&#8217;s own calculations, Minas Gerais might have at least ten times as many infected patients as its official count.</p> <p>Still, the governor is adamant about his plan to remove isolation measures before June. The state of Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, should serve as a <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/05/08/covid-19-cases-in-santa-catarina-jump-after-early-reopening/">cautionary tale</a> of the hazards of <a href="https://brazilian.report/business/2020/04/23/re-opening-business-santa-catarina-brazil-test-case/">reopening too soon</a>.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p><strong><em>The Brazilian Report</em></strong><em>&#8216;s political correspondent Brenno Grillo has approached the Minas Gerais government for comment. We will publish the answer as soon as we receive it.</em>

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Marcelo Soares

Marcelo Soares is a Brazilian journalist specializing in data journalism and reader engagement.

Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.

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