India’s excess deaths during Covid cross four million to reach 10 times official count, says study

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A relative lights the funeral pyre of a Covid-19 victim in India’s Guwahati city on 2 July 2021 (AP)
A relative lights the funeral pyre of a Covid-19 victim in India’s Guwahati city on 2 July 2021 (AP)

The number of excess deaths in India from the start of the Covid-19 pandemic till June this year could be 10 times the official toll, according to a new study.

Excess deaths from January last year till June 2021 could be between 3 million to 4.7 million, according to the study conducted by US-based nonprofit Centre for Global Development, the Associated Press (AP) reported.

Excess deaths measure the difference between the observed number of deaths in a specific time period and the expected number of deaths in the same time period. This means calculating how many more people died in a specific period of time than usual.

The study’s researchers, including the Indian government’s former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian, said estimating Covid deaths with statistical confidence may prove to be elusive, but all estimates suggest the death toll from the pandemic is likely to be an order of magnitude greater than the official count of 400,000.

India has so far reported 414,482 deaths due to Covid-19. But experts have flagged concerns that both the number of coronavirus infections and fatalities in India are a massive undercount.

Not all excess deaths estimated by the study could have been caused by Covid-19, but the overall impact of the coronavirus pandemic can still be assessed with the help of the study.

Dr Jacob John, who studies viruses at the Christian Medical College in southern India, told AP that the report underscores the devastating impact Covid-19 had 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,” he said.

The researchers also said the first wave in India seemed to have been more lethal than is popularly believed.

The authors of the study, including researchers at the Centre for Global Development and Harvard University, said mortality in the first wave appeared to be moderate because it was spread out over time and space, unlike the sudden and concentrated surge of the second wave.

They cited one of the estimates, suggesting up to two million may have died in the first wave. “In fact, not grasping the scale of the tragedy in real-time in the first wave may have bred the collective complacency that led to the horrors of the second wave,” they wrote.

The researchers said the true number of deaths during the Covid pandemic “are likely to be in the several millions not hundreds of thousands, making this arguably India’s worst human tragedy since partition and independence.”

Some Indian states have adjusted the number of their Covid-related deaths in recent months after finding fatalities which were not reported earlier.

The eastern Indian state of Bihar updated its official figures last month following an audit, increasing the number of reported deaths by 72 per cent.

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