June 29, 2020

Chart of the Week: South America COVID-19 cases probably under-reported

by Fathom Consulting.

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The world hit a morbid milestone on Monday as the total number of deaths due to COVID-19 reached half a million, according to Johns Hopkins University. Whilst Europe has been the largest source of deaths, it has now begun to cautiously re-open as the number of new daily cases per capita continues to fall. In the Americas, the story is very different.

North and South America have the second and third highest number of fatalities respectively, however unlike Europe which is now in the late stages of containing the virus, they are both seeing record increases in new daily cases. In the US, inadequate lockdown measures and enforcement in Southern and Western states are behind the recent surge. Between late April and early May, when many US states began to re-open, the percentage of tests in the US as a whole which were positive was over 10%, twice the level the WHO recommends before easing restrictions. Texas, Florida and California are among states now re-imposing some lockdown measures as new daily cases surpass 40,000 across the country.

Looking at the percentage of tests which come back positive is a good way of comparing countries by reducing the bias that different levels of testing between countries can cause. Southern and Central American countries stand out on this measure. The most recent data, over the last week, put both Mexico and Chile over 50%, with Bolivia not far behind and Argentina and Colombia hovering around the 20% mark. Before it stopped reporting the figures in April, the proportion of positive tests in Brazil was nearing 50%. Despite it already accounting for the largest number of new cases globally, such a high percentage of positive tests suggest that the true situation in South America is being significantly under-reported.

Governments in the region seem to be choosing the best worst-case scenario for their economy, remaining open, over the best worst-case scenario for the health of their citizens, lockdown. Policymakers will be hoping their fragile economies can avoid the lockdown-related slumps several western economies are experiencing. However, they cannot protect themselves fully and as cases continue to rise, self-imposed isolations will probably become more common.

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