Who is afraid of finding out the true COVID-19 figures?

Despite their initial request for a more accurate tally, the Spanish government has slammed the new system adopted by the Catalan health ministry

On Wednesday the Catalan Health Ministry confirmed what many experts had been saying for quite some time: the number of COVID-19 cases and fatalities is much higher that the official records have been showing. in fact, the number of deaths doubled and the number of positive cases nearly trebled overnight. Until recently the official scorecard would only include patients who had died in hospital after testing positive on a PCR test, but in actual fact the death toll is much worse.

The first alarm bell was rung when the figures released by the public health authorities were nowhere near the reported number of deceased residents in care homes, first in Madrid and then in Catalonia. A week ago the Spanish government themselves urged the regional authorities to provide a more accurate tally by using additional sources, such as records provided by funeral homes and the civil registry, and to include suspected positive cases.

Surprisingly enough, when Catalonia presented its new figures, the Spanish government’s spokesperson, minister María Jesús Montero, rebuffed them and spoke of the need “to avoid guesswork when it comes to serious matters”. So, what’s happening, then? Do we want to know the truth or not? Or is it that perhaps they don’t want a surge in the official figures that might ruin PM Sánchez’s media spin?

The public deserve to be treated respectfully and like adults, making all data available to them. Otherwise we would be encouraging distrust and conspiracy theories. The act of transparency by the Catalan authorities is a step in the right direction and it should be an example to the other administrations. If we wish to beat this pandemic, we need to know its actual scope, for the sake of its victims, and also to make it easier for scientists to do their job now and in the future.

The tussle over the COVID-19 figures conceals a much more worrying issue. Why on earth can’t the various administrations come to an agreement, not even on a single record keeping system? The situation is so shambolic that we are presently unable to know exactly how many patients are being treated in an intensive care unit in Spain. How can the authorities be trusted when they display such informative incompetence?

If we look elsewhere, we will see the same shambles abroad, with every country keeping their own scorecard in their own, often deficient way. The WHO should be able to provide universal criteria that allow epidemiologists to learn the true spread of the pandemic. We are not living in the early 20th century, when the Spanish flu killed between 30 and 50 million, and specialists today are still arguing about the actual death toll. In the 21st century we should be able to know what has caused every fatality and how many positive cases there are. We should be able to receive a an accurate daily update on how the pandemic is progressing. It is unacceptable that information should be concealed for partisan reasons or to preserve the good name of a country.