11,000 or 21,000 Covid deaths in Catalonia? Confusion over official data continues one year on

Both Catalan and Spanish governments both claim suspected coronavirus cases are counted but figures do not match

A medical professional performs a PCR test on a person in Lleida (by Oriol Bosch)
A medical professional performs a PCR test on a person in Lleida (by Oriol Bosch) / Cristina Tomàs White

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

March 14, 2021 04:57 PM

As of March 12, 2021, roughly a year after the first deceased due to Covid-19, exactly 21,000 people had died due to the pandemic in Catalonia since the beginning of the health crisis, according to the Catalan government – but only 11,591 according to Spain's health ministry.

This disparity is not new – it has been going on throughout the whole crisis, or at least ever since the Catalan cabinet decided to include the data reported by funeral homes on April 15, last year, meaning that not only those who had passed away were being counted.

That day, fatalities due to the disease almost doubled, from 3,756 to 7,097 cases. This prompted a debate over Spain's official death toll, but nothing has changed almost a year later.

Both government count deaths not clearly due to Covid-19

Asked by Catalan News on the criteria, the health department of Catalonia said that the figures they update every day show "those whose death certificate states that they died due to Covid-19 or suspected Covid-19."

Counting those cases without official confirmation through a PCR test goes in accordance with the World Health Organization's guidelines: "A death due to COVID-19 is defined for surveillance purposes as a death resulting from a clinically compatible illness, in a probable or confirmed COVID-19 case, unless there is a clear alternative cause of death that cannot be related to COVID disease."

One could think that the reason for the discrepancy is that Spain does not count those whose death is not confirmed with a test.

Yet, also asked by Catalan News, Spain's health ministry answers something in contradiction with this hypothesis.

"We have a variable that indicates three possibilities for each deceased: dead due to Covid-19, dead due to another cause, dead due to an unknown reason."

"In our count, we include the first and the third variables. In some cases, the cause of death cannot be established, and for this reason, we count them in order to not miss any deceased due to Covid-19," answers Spain.

No clear answers to the discrepancy

Both institutions seem to count those suspected Covid-19 deaths, but when asked why the figure according to Catalonia is double than that of Spain – or the Spanish one half of the Catalan one – both suggest to ask the other institution.

"The figures according to Spain's health ministry are those sent by Catalonia, which are validated by its epidemiological surveillance system," says a source in Madrid.

"Spain's ministry requests only a part of the data we provide and those are the figures that we send to them. We send them what they request," says a Catalan government one, without going into detail.

For eleven months, Catalonia and Spain have used different criteria to count deaths – cases match more, with Catalonia reporting 573,629 and Spain 514,156 as of March 12 –, and one year on, the reasons and the exact criteria are still very unclear.

Spanish government and Madrid region's figures do not match either

This discrepancy also exists with other regional governments. For instance, according to the Madrid region, 22,803 people have passed away due to the disease since the first outbreak – according to Spain, 14,313.

The Madrid region says that 15,786 people have died in hospitals, but this figure does not match either with the deaths for that territory according to Spain's health ministry.

The same happens with Catalonia – its government notified 13,260 deaths in medical centers as of March 12, but this is a much higher figure than the overall one given by Spain: 11,591.