Peru probes whether 27,253 coronavirus deaths uncounted

LIMA, Peru (AP) — Peruvian authorities and the Pan American Health Organization are investigating whether the country failed to count 27,253 deaths caused by the novel coronavirus, a figure that could more than double the country’s official death toll from COVID-19.

Peru already has one of the world’s highest tolls from the disease. If a large number of the suspected cases are confirmed, Peru’s death toll could surpass those of larger countries such as Spain, France and Italy.

Health Minister Pilar Mazzetti announced Thursday night that thousands of death certificates list COVID-19 as one of several causes of death, but they were not included in the country’s official toll because the victims did not undergo a coronavirus test before dying.

She said that Peru had only listed 19,021 victims as dying from COVID-19 because international standards required both a death certificate listing coronavirus and a positive test for the disease in order for a death to be included in official statistics.

She described the new review as part of an ongoing process of updating and verifying the country’s death statistics, but analysts said it appeared the government was responding to increasing public skepticism of the country’s figures on the disease.

Many Latin American countries are grappling with alleged undercounts of their coronavirus death tolls, but Peru’s more than 27,000 possibly uncounted deaths appears to be one of the highest.

Chile counts coronavirus deaths based on symptoms, without requiring a positive test.

Mexico has seen 71,000 deaths more than would have been expected during the pandemic, most officially due to causes such as respiratory disease and hypertension. With relatively limited testing in the country, it remains unclear how many actually had coronavirus. The government is reviewing 8,000 death certificates that list “possible coronavirus” as a cause of death but weren’t included in the official toll, now at 46,000.

Peru, a nation of some 32 million people, confirmed its first case of coronavirus on March 19 and conducted very little coronavirus testing in the first few months of the epidemic. It was the first country to impose a near-total quarantine requiring citizens to remain at home, but many were unable to comply because of poverty and dependence on informal jobs that required them to work illicitly during months of quarantine.

Intensive-care units and funeral services throughout the country are overwhelmed, and the country has seen one of the world’s worst recessions this year.

Opposition politicians have accused Presidente Martín Vizcarra of deliberately hiding the true toll of the disease in Peru, a charge he has rejected. He said last week that the arrival of the disease was “so abrupt that it generated chaos” and imprecise counting of the death toll.

With public pressure mounting, Peru has slowly become more flexible in its counting of the dead, adding 4,000 to its death toll last week.

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Eva Vergara in Santiago, Chile, and Maria Verza in Mexico City contributed.