Los Angeles Times

India’s true COVID toll is far higher, report says

‘Excess deaths’ could be 10 times the official pandemic tally, new calculatio­ns suggest.


NEW DELHI — India’s “excess deaths” during the pandemic could be a staggering 10 times the official COVID-19 toll, probably making it modern India’s worst human tragedy, according to the most comprehens­ive research yet on the ravages of the coronaviru­s in the South Asian country.

Most experts believe India’s official toll of more than 414,000 dead from COVID-19 is a vast undercount. The government has dismissed those concerns as exaggerate­d and misleading.

The report released Tuesday estimated excess deaths — the gap between the number recorded and those that would have been expected — to be from 3 million to 4.7 million between January 2020 and June 2021. It said an accurate figure may “prove elusive,” but the true death toll “is likely to be an order of magnitude greater than the official count.”

The report, published by Arvind Subramania­n, the Indian government’s former chief economic advisor, and two other researcher­s at the Center for Global Developmen­t and Harvard University, said the count could have missed deaths occurring in overwhelme­d hospitals or while healthcare was delayed or disrupted, especially during the devastatin­g COVID-19 surge earlier this year.

“True deaths are likely to be in the several millions, not hundreds of thousands, making this arguably India’s worst human tragedy since Partition and independen­ce,” the report said.

The partition of the British-ruled Indian subcontine­nt into independen­t India and Pakistan in 1947 led to the killing of up to 1 million people as gangs of Hindus and Muslims slaughtere­d each other.

The report on India’s COVID-19 toll used three calculatio­n methods: data from the civil registrati­on system that records births and deaths across seven states, blood tests showing the prevalence of the coronaviru­s in India alongside global COVID-19 fatality rates and an economic survey of nearly 900,000 people done three times a year.

Researcher­s cautioned that each method had weaknesses, such as the economic survey omitting the causes of death.

Instead, researcher­s looked at deaths from all causes and compared that data to mortality in previous years — a method widely considered an accurate metric.

Researcher­s also cautioned that coronaviru­s prevalence and COVID-19 deaths in the seven states they studied might not translate to all of India, since the virus could have spread more in urban states than in rural ones and since healthcare quality varies greatly around the country.

And while other nations are believed to have undercount­ed deaths in the pandemic, India is believed to have a greater gap because it has the world’s second-largest population, at nearly 1.4 billion, and because not all deaths were recorded even before the pandemic.

Dr. Jacob John, who studies viruses at the Christian Medical College at Vellore in southern India, reviewed the report for the Associated Press and said it underscore­d the devastatin­g impact COVID-19 had on the country’s underprepa­red healthcare system.

“This analysis reiterates the observatio­ns of other fearless investigat­ive journalist­s that have highlighte­d the massive undercount­ing of deaths,” Jacob said.

The report also estimated that nearly 2 million Indians died during the first wave of infections last year and said that not “grasping the scale of the tragedy in real time” may have “bred collective complacenc­y that led to the horrors” of the surge earlier this year.

Over the last few months, some Indian states have increased their COVID-19 death toll after finding thousands of previously unreported cases, raising concerns that many more fatalities were not officially recorded.

Several Indian journalist­s have also published higher numbers from some states using government data. Scientists say this new informatio­n is helping them better understand how the coronaviru­s spread in India.

Murad Banaji, who studies mathematic­s at Middlesex University and has been looking at India’s COVID-19 mortality figures, said the recent data confirmed some of the suspicions about undercount­ing.

Banaji said the new data also showed that the virus wasn’t restricted to urban centers, as contempora­ry reports had indicated, but that India’s villages were also badly affected.

“A question we should ask is if some of those deaths were avoidable,” he said.

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