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Excess mortality statistics defended by Government

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Excess mortality during the COVID-19 pandemic could be ten times higher than the official numbers, research claims – but the Government has defended its figures. 

A recent study carried out by the Center for Global Development estimated that excess mortality between January 2020 and June 2021 could be between three million and 4.7 million. This is compared to the official death toll of 400,000 as of the end of June 2021. According to the report, “the reality is, of course, catastrophically worse…What is tragically clear is that too many people, in the millions rather than hundreds of thousands, may have died.” 

The report states that “India is one of the few major economies that does not have estimates of excess deaths during the Covid pandemic, reflected for example, in its absence from global databases such as the Human Mortality Database or the World Mortality Database.” However, it says, “this picture is fast changing. And we are now, for the first time, getting data-based estimates of excess deaths at an all-India level. This owes, in part, to the heroic efforts of a number of journalists, newspapers, and researchers who have used domestic laws and unrelenting investigative sleuthing to obtain accurate and timely official data during the apocalyptic second wave.” 

The report suggests India’s first wave was more lethal than first thought, ascribing two million deaths. Arvind Subramanian, one of the report’s authors, said “after the first wave, which was more spread out, there was a sense that India had escaped the worst because there was this undercounting of deaths, and that led to a culture of complacency. But in the second wave, with all the horrendous images that we saw, that really galvanised Indian society to get to the bottom of the numbers.” 

This is not the first time the official death toll in India  during the pandemic has been called into question. Data journalist Rukmini S. posited the actual number of fatalities to be 2.5 million including 1.5 million fatalities during the second wave in an interview with The Wire. She called for a mortality survey, describing it as “fast, easy to do, cheap and can be very well done.”

In an analysis for IndiaSpend, she wrote “a spate of deaths from “fever” and “unknown causes” tore through rural India in April and May this year, coinciding with India’s second COVID-19 wave, new official data show. 

“While deaths from clinically diagnosed respiratory infections surged too, the spurt of undiagnosed deaths points to the scale of potential undercounting of COVID-19 deaths in India. “The latest data are from the National Health Mission’s (NHM) Health Management Information System (HMIS), and show nearly 300,000 more deaths in May 2021 compared to May 2019, which is more than 2.5 times India’s official Covid-19 death count for the same period.”

Yet the Government has defended its excess mortality statistics. “These news reports quoting findings from some recent studies, US and European countries’ age-specific infection fatality rates have been used to calculate excess deaths in India based on the sero-positivity,” said the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. “The extrapolation of deaths has been done on an audacious assumption that the likelihood of any given infected person dying is the same across countries, dismissing the interplay between various direct and indirect factors such as race, ethnicity, the genomic constitution of a population, previous exposure levels to other diseases and the associated immunity developed in that population.”

It asserted that “as early as May 2020, to avoid inconsistency or confusion in the number of deaths being reported, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) issued ‘Guidance for the appropriate recording of COVID-19 related deaths in India’ for correct recording of all deaths by States, UTs [union territories] as per ICD-10 codes recommended by WHO [World Health Organization] for mortality coding. The Health Ministry has also regularly emphasised the need for a robust reporting mechanism for monitoring district-wise cases and deaths on a daily basis. States have been advised to conduct thorough audits in their hospitals and report any cases or deaths that could have been missed with a district and date-wise details so as to guide a data-driven decision making.” 

The Ministry asserted “the reports assume that all the excess mortality figures are COVID-19 deaths, which is not based on facts and totally fallacious. Excess mortality is a term used to describe an all-cause mortality figure and attributing these deaths to COVID-19 is completely misleading.” Health Minister Mankush Mandaviya denied undercounting, stating that the Government only compiles data submitted by states and union territories. 

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