Covid-19 May Have Killed Over 3.4 Million People in India, Says US Think-Tank

Several experts have cast doubts on India's official toll, blaming the way deaths are counted in the country rather than deliberate misinformation.

Beneficiaries flouting Covid norms while waiting in a queue to receive COVID-19 vaccine dose, at a vaccination centre in Ranchi, on July 6, 2021. (PTI Photo)

New Delhi: Excess deaths in India during the covid pandemic could have been between 3.4 to 4.9 million, according to a new report by US-based think-tank. According to the report, co-authored by India’s former chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian, Justin Sandefur from the US-based think-tank Center for Global Development and Abhishek Anand from Harvard University, suggests that millions more may have lost their lives due to SARS-CoV-2 virus than the official count.

“Estimating Covid-deaths with statistical confidence may prove elusive. But all estimates suggest that the death toll from the pandemic is likely to be an order of magnitude greater than the official count of 400,000,” the authors said.

“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,” the authors added in their report.

According to their estimates, the number of excess deaths between January 2020 and June 2021 are between 3.4 million to 4.9 million.

Excess deaths are additional deaths recorded during a pandemic, as compared to a corresponding period in pre-pandemic years, and could be a potential indicator of undercounting in India’s Covid toll.

India’s official Covid-19 tally on Wednesday was 4,18,480 (4.18 lakh), the third-highest in the world after the US and Brazil.

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Noting that India lacks an authoritative estimate of the death toll from Covid, the researchers based their estimate of excess mortality on three different data sources from the pandemic’s start through June this year.

First, the extrapolation of state-level civil registration of deaths from seven states. This suggests 3.4 million excess deaths.

Second, the researchers applied international estimates of age-specific infection fatality rates (IFR) to Indian seroprevalence data. This implies a higher toll of around 4 million.

IFR assesses the proportion of deaths among identified confirmed cases and allows estimation of excess deaths.

Third, the researchers analysed data from the Consumer Pyramid Household Survey (CPHS), a survey of over 800,000 individuals across all states. This yields an estimate of 4.9 million excess deaths.

The researchers said they don’t favour any one estimate because each has merits and shortcomings.

India is still emerging from a devastating second wave that started in March and is believed to have been driven by the more transmissible Delta variant.

The analysis also suggests the first wave was more lethal than believed. By March-end this year, when the second wave started, India had an official death toll of over 1,50,000 (1.5 lakh).

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Several experts have cast doubts on India’s official toll, blaming the way deaths are counted in the country rather than deliberate misinformation.

Since official figures don’t represent the reality, there is need to use indirect methods such as an estimation of excess deaths due to all causes over the pandemic period, said Gautam Menon, professor, Departments of Physics and Biology, Ashoka University, Haryana.

“We cannot be certain that total excess deaths have been 10 times higher than recorded Covid-19 deaths. But even the most conservative estimates give around 2.5 million excess deaths to date, roughly six times the official COVID-19 death count,” Murad Banaji told PTI in response to the findings. Murad Banaji is a senior lecturer in mathematics at UK’s Middlesex University.

Banaji, who has been looking at India’s Covid-19 mortality figures, said the report suggests that during the pandemic, India has seen a surge in deaths many times higher than the official Covid-19 death-count.

Noting that there is no easy way of determining how many of the excess deaths are from Covid-19, he added that epidemiological and international data suggests a large part of the excess mortality is likely to be from the disease.

“We can say with confidence that India has only counted a small fraction of its Covid-19 deaths. In fact, it is very likely that India has recorded fewer than one in five of its Covid-19 deaths to date.”

According to Banaji, the main takeaway from the report is that while mortality has been high, disease surveillance and transparency have been very poor.

On Wednesday, India recorded a single-day rise of 3,998 coronavirus fatalities and 42,015 new cases as Maharashtra carried out a data reconciliation exercise, according to the Union Health Ministry. While the death toll went up to 4,18,480, the case tally is now 3,12,16,337 (3.12 crore/31.2 million) with a daily positivity rate of 2.27 per cent — it has been less than three per cent for 30 consecutive days.

(With Inputs from PTI)