True COVID Toll in India Likely in the Millions

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Excess deaths in India during the pandemic could be as much as 10 times the official COVID toll, likely making it modern India’s worst human tragedy, according to a new report.

report published by Arvind Subramanian, the Indian government’s former chief economic adviser, and two other researchers at the Center for Global Development and Harvard University, estimates that between 3.4 million and 4.7 million excess deaths have occurred in the country from January 2020 to June 2021.

The report said that the true toll was likely “an order of magnitude higher”, and the official count could have missed deaths with overwhelmed and disrupted healthcare systems, particularly during the devastating virus surge earlier this year. It also has recently come to light that the Indian government did not count any deaths due to a lack of oxygen.

The researchers from used three different data sources to estimate India’s excess all-cause mortality. They extrapolated death registrations from seven states, accounting for half of India’s population, but published data for annual mortality surveys are only available up to 2019. Second, the researchers applied international estimates of age-specific infection fatality rates to data from two countrywide antibody tests, also called sero surveys. Third, they looked at India’s thrice yearly consumer survey of 900 000 individuals, which also records deaths in households.

Taken together, the researchers arrived at an estimate of of 3.4 million to 4.7 million – about 10 times higher than India’s official COVID death toll of 414 000. This was also considerably higher than other estimates by epidemiologists, who estimated excess deaths were between five and seven times higher. Not all these deaths were caused by COVID and an estimation of the actual death toll by the disease would be difficult to give, said Subramanian. 

The data implied that four million people had died in the pandemic in India, according to Dr Subramanian.

“Two of our three estimates measure all-cause mortality and not COVID deaths. Our second measure is a bit closer to a number of [actual] COVID deaths, but it is only one of three estimates,” Dr Subramanian told the BBC.

The researchers also said that the first wave last year appeared to have been more lethal than what was popularly believed. Mortality only seemed to be moderate because it was “spread out in time and space”.

Dr Subramanian said one of the conclusions might be that “India has not been an outlier” and has had “mortality not dissimilar from countries of comparable size and infections”.

The researchers said the most “critical take-away, regardless of the sources and estimates”, was that actual deaths during the pandemic were “likely to be far greater than the official count”.

“The true deaths are likely to be in several millions, not hundreds of thousands, making this arguably India’s worst human tragedy since the partition and independence.” The 1947 Partition of the British-ruled Indian subcontinent into independent India and Pakistan resulted in up to 1 million people being killed in violence between Hindu and Muslim gangs.

Source: BBC News

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