Brazil breaks into Covid-19 top 3, but could already be number 1

and . May 19, 2020
Brazil breaks into Covid-19 top 3, but could already be number 1 Protective mask on the floor in front of the Maracanã field hospital. Photo: A. Paes/Shutterstock

With 255,368 total coronavirus infections as of Monday evening, according to Johns Hopkins University, Brazil has now leapfrogged the United Kingdom as the country with the third-highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world. However, while these numbers are already frightening, Brazil has the lowest rate of coronavirus testing out of the ten countries with the most infections, suggesting the actual total may be far higher.

With its massive population of almost 210 million people, it should come as no surprise that Brazil is among the worst-affected countries in absolute numbers. Indeed, Brazil’s number of cases per 1 million inhabitants is lower than that of the United Kingdom or Italy, where more overall infections have been recorded. On Friday, Brazil’s Chief of Staff Walter Souza Braga Netto attempted to cash in on this data, sharing a crudely made chart on WhatsApp highlighting that the country’s Covid-19 deaths per capita are comparatively small. 

This, however, masks the inconvenient truth that Brazil’s official Covid-19 figures do not tell the full story of the virus’ spread in the country.

</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/2469111" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <h2>You can&#8217;t confirm cases if you don&#8217;t test</h2> <p>According to online data platform <a href="">World-O-Meter</a>, which uses countries&#8217; official databases, Brazil has only tested 3,462 people for every million citizens, an embarrassingly low rate that is nowhere near the situation in the other nine countries with the most cases. In the U.S., which has by far the most recorded coronavirus cases with over 1.5 million, the testing rate is 37,274 per million citizens — almost 11 times that of Brazil.</p> <p>Even in Iran, which has 50 percent less Covid-19 cases than Brazil, testing is almost two and a half times more frequent.</p> <p><strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> has explored the possibility of underreporting in the country, using the curious case of Minas Gerais state as a case study. With over 21 million people, Minas is the second-most populous of Brazil&#8217;s 27 states, yet it has only <a href="">registered 4,695 cases of Covid-19</a> to date — less than two percent of the national total. The reason for this massive disparity is not down to any successful infectious disease policy by the state government, however, it is that suspected cases of the virus are simply not being tested.</p> <p>On a national scale, some studies estimate that Brazil&#8217;s actual total of coronavirus infections could be as much as 12 times the official numbers.</p> <h2>Even low estimates are troubling</h2> <p>From the chart below, we see that even though testing remains slow in the country, the infection rate has risen at a vertiginous pace over the last two weeks. Furthermore, the sharp increases in the Northeast and North regions of the country are particularly worrying, being Brazil&#8217;s poorest and where health infrastructure is the most precarious.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/2455994" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>In the Northeast, in particular, new cases have exploded in the states of Ceará, Pernambuco, and Maranhão, causing the region to overtake the immensely more populated Southeast as the area with the highest seven-day average of new cases.</p> <h2>Testing around the world</h2> <p>The common-sense hypothesis is that higher testing rates will result in more reported cases. This is borne out in the international evidence, as shown by the chart below. Spain, Belgium, and Italy, countries with the highest testing rates, have also recorded the largest number of deaths per 1 million inhabitants. This trend is largely repeated as we move along the chart, with Russia&#8217;s low official mortality rates serving as an outlier.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-scatter" data-src="visualisation/2454277" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>This tendency repeats with regard to confirmed cases. Projecting by the line of best fit in both charts, if Brazil were to replicate the U.S.&#8217; testing rate of 37,274 per 1 million inhabitants, the country could record something in the region of 630,000 confirmed cases and 63,000 deaths.</p> <figure class="wp-block-embed-wordpress wp-block-embed is-type-wp-embed is-provider-flourish"><div class="wp-block-embed__wrapper"> <iframe class="wp-embedded-content" sandbox="allow-scripts" security="restricted" src="" data-secret="yIQAh6RY5M" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" height="575" width="700"></iframe> </div></figure> <p>

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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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