According to the most comprehensive study to date of the virus’s devastation in the South Asian country, India’s excess deaths during the pandemic could be as much as 10 times the official COVID-19 toll, making it likely the worst human toll. tragedy of modern India.
Most experts believe that India’s official toll of more than 414,000 dead is a huge undercount, but the government has dismissed those concerns as exaggerated and misleading.
The report published Tuesday that the estimated number of additional deaths — the gap between those recorded and those expected — will be 3.4 million to 4.7 million between January 2020 and June 2021. “probably an order of magnitude greater than the official count.”
The report is published by Arvind Subramanian, the former chief economic adviser to the Indian government, and two other researchers from the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit think tank based in Washington, and Harvard University.
It said the tally could have missed deaths that occurred in congested hospitals or while health care was disrupted, especially during the devastating virus wave earlier this year.
Worst Tragedy Since the Partition of India
“The actual number of deaths is likely to be in the millions and not hundreds of thousands, making this arguably India’s worst human tragedy since partition and independence,” the report said.
The division of the British-ruled Indian subcontinent into independent India and Pakistan in 1947 led to the murder of 1 million people as mobs of Hindus and Muslims massacred each other.
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A Canadian expert said the overall conclusions of the report are likely correct, but its methodology is problematic.
“They did their best,” Prabhat Jha, a physician and epidemiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, said in an interview with CBC News. “They end up with a large number, over 3 million dead, but they end up with… [the] somewhat implausible idea that the first viral wave, which was last September, was bigger than the current viral wave, which was April to May or April to June.”
He said the researchers included data from unreliable sources, which will lead to restraint from the Indian government over their findings.
Still, Jha said he agreed that India’s death toll is much higher than 400,000, which he said would mean the country had a death rate about one-eighth that of the United States.
“No one really seriously believes that Indian death rates from the infection are that low.”
The Indian virus toll report used three methods of calculation: data from the civil registry system that records births and deaths in seven states, blood tests showing the prevalence of the virus in India alongside global death rates from COVID-19, and an economic survey of nearly 900,000 people did so three times a year.
Researchers did warn that each method had weaknesses, such as the economic study that omitted the causes of death.
So the researchers also looked at all-cause mortality and compared that data with mortality in previous years.
Researchers also warned that virus prevalence and COVID-19 deaths in the seven states they studied may not translate to all of India, as the virus could have spread more in urban than rural states and as quality of health care varies widely. in india.
Other countries are also believed to have too few deaths during the pandemic. But India is believed to have a wider gap because of the world’s second largest population of 1.4 billion and because not all deaths were recorded even before the pandemic.
The Department of Health did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment on the report.
dr. Jacob John, who studies viruses at Christian Medical College in South India’s Vellore and was not part of the investigation, reviewed the report for the AP and said it underscores the devastating impact COVID-19 had on the ill-prepared health system of the country.
“This analysis echoes the observations of other intrepid investigative journalists who have emphasized the mass undercounting of deaths,” Jacob said.
The report also estimated that nearly 2 million Indians died in the first wave of infections last year and said failure to “understand the magnitude of the tragedy in real time” may have led to “collective complacency leading to the horrors” of the wave. earlier this year .
In the past few months, some Indian states have increased their death tolls from COVID-19 after finding thousands of previously unreported cases, raising concerns that many more fatalities were not officially recorded.
Several Indian journalists have also published higher figures from some states using government data. Scientists say this new information helps them better understand how COVID-19 spread in India.
Murad Banaji, who studies mathematics at Middlesex University and has looked at COVID-19 death rates in India, said the recent data has confirmed some suspicions about undercounting. Banaji said the new data also shows that the virus was not confined to urban centers as contemporary reports had indicated, and that India’s villages were also badly affected.
“One question we need to ask is whether some of those deaths were avoidable,” he said.