New Delhi: A group of over 230 public health professionals, epidemiologists and activists has sought the release of data on all registered deaths in India since 2018. The idea is to plug potential gaps in India’s Covid-19 fatality figures and assess the pandemic’s true impact, including on non-Covid patients who may have died in the absence of adequate medical attention in an overwhelmed health system.
In an open letter written Sunday, the experts — including epidemiologists Gautam Menon and Giridhar R. Babu, and former Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) chief T. Jacob John — have sought the overall death data for 2018, 2019 and 2020 to calculate “excess mortality” statistics, that is, “mortality above what we would have expected under normal conditions”.
At no other point in the history of India has the data collected by the civil registration system been so important, the experts add in the letter, which is addressed to the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, state registrars, and other agencies such as municipal corporations that maintain death records.
“Vital registration systems that record births and deaths are unrivaled health surveillance tools that are particularly valuable in responding to epidemics,” they state.
Throughout the pandemic, experts have raised doubts on whether India is reporting Covid-19 deaths accurately. Even in national capital New Delhi, allegations of discrepant data have continued to stalk official Covid fatality data.
Experts also alleged in June that some Covid-19 deaths in India may be slipping through the cracks of low testing. This has been a concern in other parts of the world too.
In April, an analysis by The New York Times involving mortality data from 11 nations suggested that the official worldwide death toll of the coronavirus pandemic may be short by thousands.
There have also been fears that thousands of non-Covid patients may have died because they couldn’t get the medical attention they needed amid the pandemic.
‘Data will help guide policy responses’
In their letter, the experts have said that the release of overall death figures may help quantify the mortality impact of the Covid-19 pandemic in India in real time, and guide policy responses.
“In the last few months, vital registration systems in many countries have made available these statistics and galvanised them to inform their mitigation strategies… This data will help public authorities in India identify places which need restrictions on movements, increased testing, and where healthcare provision needs to be strengthened,” the letter states.
“This data will also add to the scientific knowledge on Covid-19 in India, by improving understanding of the infection fatality rate of the virus,” it adds.
According to the experts, to estimate excess deaths correctly, “information on deaths for at least the last three years (2018, 2019, and 2020) would be crucial”. “If causes of death are available for these years, we request authorities to release these,” the letter states.