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Are COVID-19 cases higher than official claims?

India’s official COVID-19 figures are dire. As of May 11th COVID-19 cases number at 22,992,517 with 250,025 deaths recorded so far. Some commentators, however, have postulated that the actual figures are significantly higher.

Test and sample virus crown covid virus 19. COVID-19 tests illustration. Image credit: ambrozinio / 123rf
Image credit: ambrozinio / 123rf

A Twitter thread by Dr Ashish K. Jha, Dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, suggests that the fact that crematoriums across the country are overburdened is indicative that COVID-19 deaths are far higher. 

“India reports another 400,000+ cases, 4000+ death day. A sustained level of horribleness. And [its] not correct. True number surely closer to 25,000 deaths, 2-5 million infections today” reads the Tweet. “During [the] non-pandemic year 2019. About 27,000 Indians died on [a] typical day. Crematoriums handle that level of deaths every day. Additional 4,000 deaths won’t knock them off their feet. Crematoriums across the country reporting 2-4X normal business.”

The basis of the theory is that India, even before the COVID-19 pandemic counted roughly 27,000 daily deaths on average. An additional 4,000 deaths, therefore, would not have caused the catastrophic disruptions to both the health system and the crematoriums. This additional 4,000 deaths has only occurred during the previously globally unheard of heights of the second wave, and even this figure may fall within the normal range of the 27,000 average deaths.

As Dr Jha describes, this figure would “barely be [a] blip in the background”. He approximates that the true figure lies between 25,000 and 50,000 deaths a day in order to overwhelm the crematoriums. 

Other commentary is equally as critical of India’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. An editorial published in The Lancet described the situation as dire. “Hospitals are overwhelmed, and health workers are exhausted and becoming infected,” the piece states. Social media is full of desperate people (doctors and the public) seeking medical oxygen, hospital beds, and other necessities.”

More extreme examples of news have alleged that some state governments have attempted to crack down on both hospitals and individuals posting online regarding the need for oxygen. Local authorities have themselves called the situation “no less than a genocide”. Justices Siddhartha Varma and Ajit Kumar said at a recent hearing “we are at pain in observing that death of COVID-19 patients just for non-supply of oxygen to the hospitals is a criminal act and not less than a genocide by those who have been entrusted the task to ensure continuous procurement and supply chain of the liquid medical oxygen.”

Regardless of whether the official figures are to be believed, or, as Dr Jha suggests, they are a severe underestimate of the true figures, one fact remains true — people are dying unnecessarily. For individuals who would have otherwise survived to have lost their lives due to lack of hospital capacity, or lack of critical supplies such as oxygen is no less than a tragedy, and one that does not look to be over in the near future.

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