Debunking the myth of El Salvador's management of the pandemic
Regular readers of El Salvador Perspectives will remember that there have been strong reasons to doubt the official statistics of death from COVID-19 in El Salvador. As I described in January, although the official death count in El Salvador from the COVID-19 pandemic was 4299 as of December 31, researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington estimated that the actual number of pandemic-related deaths since March 2020 may have reached almost 26,000. The official numbers thus represent a gross under-reporting which serves the government's version of how well it has managed the pandemic.
Now an investigative report from La Prensa Grafica has revealed that the government's own internal statistics documented a much higher rate of COVID-19 deaths than it acknowledged to the Salvadoran public. While the IHME numbers were based on statistical models of mortality rates and the progression of the pandemic, these leaked documents counted actual death certificates. The Guardian newspaper summarized some of the LPG findings:
Internal documents reveal, however, that the ministry registered a total of 15,956 deaths [not 4299] related to Covid-19 between March 2020 and January 2023.
The Salvadoran newspaper verified the underreporting of deaths by examining hospital figures and studying the deadliest day of the pandemic. The leaked documents state that 57 Covid deaths were confirmed and 14 suspected on 1 October 2021 while the health ministry tweeted that only 17 had died from the illness that day.
Death certificates with Covid-19 listed as a cause of death corroborated that deaths were left out of the public record, La Prensa Gráfica said. In total, the number of people confirmed to have died from Covid-19 was underreported by 3,226 while another 6,977 suspected Covid-19 deaths did not make it into the public tally.
The Guardian article notes:
Salvadoran doctors had alleged that the government was censoring information during the pandemic to give the illusion it had the public health crisis under control while in reality the public health system was collapsing.
This graphic from LPG shows how the death statistics released by the Ministry of Health on social media throughout 2021, were always significantly below the totals of actual and likely cases o COVID-19.
The same pattern existed in 2020 and 2022. In all, the statistics from the leaked documents revealed deaths which were 370% higher than the government was telling the public.
Salvadoran infectious disease experts condemned the political manipulation of COVID-19 mortality statistics in statements to LPG:
"This manipulation of the data was with a political intention to try to show the population 'the excellent handling' of the pandemic," said infectious disease specialist Iván Solano Leiva yesterday. Jorge Panameno, also an infectologist, agreed that "hiding (figures) had no health reason, but rather reflected a fictitious situation of control and management of the pandemic that never existed."
The narrative that El Salvador has been a world example for how to manage the pandemic, based in these manipulated data, is still being repeated by government officials. Just a month ago, Health Minister Francisco Alabi was telling a reporter that El Salvador had been "lauded by experts" for its management of the pandemic and was recognized worldwide for its exemplary handling of COVID-19.
The lesson here is not so much about COVID-19, but about how readily the Bukele regime will lie to the Salvadoran public in order to preserve its image as the best government they could ever hope for. The country is months away from national elections, and the COVID-19 myth of success will continue to be propagated to garner votes for Bukele and his party. It won't be the only area where the propaganda fails to match up to a reality hidden by the government.