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Doctors Without Facts: Médecins Sans Frontières gets it wrong on Brazil


SELECTIVE outrage strikes again. The medical NGO Médecins Sans Frontières issued a statement last week declaring the Covid-19 situation in Brazil to be ‘a humanitarian catastrophe‘.

MSF International President Dr Christos Christou pointed the finger at the Brazilian authorities, accusing them of refusing to adopt ‘evidence-based public health measures’.

‘Science-based policies are associated with political opinions, rather than the need to protect individuals and their communities from Covid-19,’ he said.

What are these ‘science-based’ policies he speaks of, and what evidence is there for them?

In the same statement, MSF General Director Meinie Nicolai said, ‘The wearing of masks, physical distancing, strict hygiene measures, and the restriction of non-essential movement and activities must be promoted and implemented in the community.’

Ah, those.

Much of the media, particularly the BBC and the Guardian, have been pushing this message all week. As with Italy last year, we are presented with harrowing footage of patients in ICUs, bereaved families, and coffins being lowered into graves by figures in hazmat suits.

We are told that Brazil’s handling of the pandemic is the ‘worst in the world‘, that it’s all the fault of their unlovely President Jair Bolsonaro and his ‘Right-wing’ government for not being civilised like the rest of the world and putting their citizens under house arrest for their own good. But does this conventional wisdom stand up to scrutiny?

Short answer: No. While the numbers from different countries do tell us that Brazil’s excess mortality rate is high, and that its Covid deaths per million rate is (only as of this month, more than a year into the pandemic) the highest in South America by a small margin, they also show us that it is not the highest in the world.

Crucially, they show that Brazil’s overall mortality rate is nowhere near as bad as those of several countries which stringently imposed the very ‘science-based’ restrictions MSF advocates, including European countries with much lower levels of poverty than Brazil.

Independent Sage member Martin McKee, of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, authored a paper stating that countries with ‘populist’ leaders, including Brazil, the USA, Russia, India (and the UK apparently) were ‘among the worst‘ in responding to the pandemic. Note the use of the word ‘among’. Which other countries that are not necessarily led by populists are also ‘among’ the worst-performing nations?

For making fair comparisons, all-cause death rates are a more reliable measure than the official Covid death figures which, though important, are vulnerable to the problems of undercounting and overcounting. Furthermore, comparing raw death tolls doesn’t take into account the different numbers of inhabitants in different countries.

This should be obvious, but it needs saying when, for example, BBC reporters say things like ‘Brazil has by far the highest overall death toll in Latin America’, as if that ought to shock people when Brazil also has ‘by far’ the largest population in Latin America. A Guardian feature last week reported that Brazil’s official Covid death toll was among the highest in the world, ‘second only’ to the US, but failed to mention that Brazil’s some 211million citizens make Brazil one of the most populous countries in the Western Hemisphere, ‘second only’ to the US. A higher death toll in a country with a higher population, though not necessarily inevitable (more on that later) is not surprising, and if we don’t factor this in, we might as well congratulate San Marino for having a lower death toll than Brazil.

The Economist’s excess death tracker, which combines data from the World Mortality Dataset and the Human Mortality Database, shows that the country with the highest number of deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in the world is not Brazil but its South American neighbour, Peru, which has an unenviable 412 excess deaths per 100,000. Brazil, by comparison, stands at 183 deaths per 100,000, which is not only less bad than Peru, but also less bad than neighbours Bolivia, at 203 per 100,000, and Ecuador, at 281 per 100,000.

A damning article in the British Medical Journal last month pointed out that Peru’s excess death rate is ‘more than twice that of the US and the most of any large nation’.

It said: ‘The government reported that 47,000 Peruvians [now 58,000] have died from Covid-19 so far, though excess death figures suggest that, because of undertesting, the actual total is closer to 85,000.”

The media love to demonise Sweden’s shunning of lockdowns by comparing its lower-than-much-of-Europe death rate exclusively with the exceptionally low death rates of its less populated Scandinavian neighbours (if Sweden were compared with Baltic neighbours Lithuania and Poland it would look good). Why do they never compare Brazil with its less populated immediate neighbours?

Why did Good Morning Britain’s Dr Hilary Jones lecture the Bath pub landlord Rod Humphris (who threw out lockdown supporter Sir Keir Starmer) about the Covid crisis in Brazil, but not Peru?

More importantly, where were the fact-checkers when Dr Jones said, ‘If you look at all the countries that locked down earlier, they’ve had better health outcomes and better economies’?

The ‘independent’ fact-checkers patrol only dissenting voices, but never establishment mouthpieces. So I will. Fact check: False.

The highest excess deaths and Covid death rates in Europe include countries that ‘locked down sooner’ such as the Czech Republic and Belgium, whose ‘failed strategy’ is never compared with those of its neighbouring states (nor denounced by its King, for that matter).

By contrast Japan, a densely populated, rapidly ageing nation of more than 126million people, neither locked down nor mass-tested its citizens, nor even shut itself off from the world, despite grim warnings from its own health ministry of 400,000 Covid deaths and accusations of doing ‘too little, too late’.

And yet, little known to many, Japan suffered no excess deaths at all last year. This cannot be attributed to Japan’s ‘mask culture’, because strict mask mandates have failed to prevent high death rates in Europe and the Americas, even when combined with contact tracing and lockdowns.

Peru, a poverty-stricken, Latin American nation like Brazil, is worth focusing on because it locked down earlier, on March 16, 2020, and prolonged the lockdown until the end of June. There was no ‘dithering‘, as Sir Keir Starmer often complains when the Johnson government isn’t flattening the country quickly enough for his liking. Peru’s three-and-a-half month lockdown was accompanied by curfews, border closures and mask mandates.

A Guardian article last year admitted that Peru’s timely, ‘science-based’ restrictions failed. Alas, it drew the wrong conclusions and made excuses for Peru.

This evidence-averse mentality is similar to that of some academics, always able to explain why the consistently failed communist experiments around the world ‘don’t count’. New Zealand has taken over from Cuba as the intelligensia’s exaggerated, morally dubious success story that has largely depended on its geographical advantages to dupe people into idealising it.

The Guardian article quoted Elmer Huerta, a ‘trusted’ Peruvian TV doctor, as saying: ‘Peru’s response was right on time. It was the first country in Latin America to respond with a lockdown. But the problem was people’s behaviour. The fact that on the eighth week of confinement you have thousands of people who are positive means that those people got the virus while the country was in lockdown – which means they did not respect the law.’

This assertion from South America’s answer to Hilary Jones is the precise reason that everyone is ceaselessly reminded of big bad Bolsonaro by lockdown peddlers like Médecins Sans Frontières. It is also why I didn’t know the President of Peru’s name until I read the aforementioned article while researching this essay (his name is Martín Vizcarra, for what it’s worth).

It is why governments around the world continue to double down, triple down and quadruple down on the endless folly of lockdowns and restrictions despite the lack of hard evidence that they save any lives and the indisputable evidence that they directly kill and ruin many lives.

If the government does not lock down and people die, the government is to blame. If the government does lock down and people die, the people are to blame.

This article first appeared in the Harry Dougherty Blog on April 22, 2021, and is republished by kind permission.

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Harry Dougherty
Harry Dougherty
Harry Dougherty is a journalist and writer.

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