India’s excess deaths since the beginning of the pandemic could be 10 times the official toll of deaths resulting from COVID-19, likely making it modern India’s worst human tragedy.
Most experts believe that India’s official toll of nearly 414,500 dead is a vast undercount, but the government has dismissed those concerns as exaggerated and misleading.
A report released on Tuesday estimated excess deaths — the gap between those recorded and those that would have been expected — to be 3 million to 4.7 million between January last year and June 2021.
An accurate figure might “prove elusive,” but the true toll “is likely to be an order of magnitude greater than the official count,” it said.
The report, published by former Indian chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian and two other researchers at the Center for Global Development and Harvard University, said that the count could have missed deaths occurring in overwhelmed hospitals, or while healthcare was delayed or disrupted, especially during the devastating peak of infections 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,” it 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 virus 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 virus in India alongside global COVID-19 fatality rates and an economic survey of nearly 900,000 people done three times per year.
Researchers said that each method had weaknesses, such as the economic survey omitting the causes of death, so they looked at deaths from all causes and compared that data to mortality in previous years — a method widely considered to be an accurate metric.
Researchers also said that virus prevalence and the COVID-19 deaths in the seven states that they studied might not translate to all of India, as the virus could have spread worse in urban versus rural states and as healthcare quality varies greatly across India.
While there are other nations believed to have undercounted deaths in the pandemic, India is believed to have a greater gap due to it having the world’s second-highest population (1.4 billion people). Its situation is further complicated because not all deaths were recorded even before the pandemic.
Jacob John, who studies viruses at Christian Medical College in Vellore, India, said that the report underscores the devastating effect of COVID-19 on the country’s under-prepared health 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 surge of infections last year, and said that not “grasping the scale of the tragedy in real time” might have “bred collective complacency that led to the horrors” of the surge earlier this year.
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