Hyderabad: Telangana witnessed thousands of ‘excess deaths’ in 2020, as compared to the average annual fatalities in the four preceding pre-pandemic years, state government data obtained through an RTI query suggests.
‘Excess deaths’ refer to the additional fatalities reported in a certain time period, as compared to the average number of deaths expected in that time based on trends witnessed in earlier years.
In the context of Covid, excess deaths may convey pandemic fatalities that never made it to official records — for example, those that were categorised with a different cause — or patients of other grievous ailments who could not get requisite medical care as the healthcare system turned its focus to the novel coronavirus.
While the Telangana government acknowledges that there has been an increase in deaths in 2020 and 2021, as compared to previous years, it says they are yet to look into the matter since they’re “busy tackling the pandemic”.
According to data sourced by city-based activist Vijay Gopal from ‘MeeSeva’ — a government-run citizen helpline that helps with issuing/applying for Aadhaar cards, ration cards etc, besides providing copies of birth, death certificates — Telangana witnessed at least 1,20,929 deaths in 2020.
In comparison, the state of approximately 3.5 crore residents, recorded at least 79,097 deaths in 2019, 62,142 in 2018, 63,900 in 2017, and 48,849 in 2016, the data shows. The average thus derived comes to 63,497/year.
At least 1,80,437 deaths were recorded between March 2020 and mid-June 2021, the RTI data further states.
However, experts said the actual figures could be different, even higher, because of how MeeSeva records data — the figures here convey the number of people who died in the stated period, but only those whose relatives approached MeeSeva for copies of their death certificates.
The official Covid death toll for Telangana, which recorded its first case of the disease in March, was 1,544 as of 31 December. The number had risen to 3,831 by 10 August.
Reached for comment, the Telangana government denied undercounting of Covid deaths in the state. Telangana Director of Public Health G. Srinivas Rao said a Covid-infected individual’s death is only categorised as pandemic-related if the patient was otherwise healthy and without comorbidities.
“There is no issue of underreporting. We report whatever has come to our notice. For any death to be officially counted as a Covid death, the person should not have any comorbidities and must be full healthy (say a 35- or a 45-year-old) and then if they’re infected and unfortunately succumb to the virus – only then we count it as a Covid death,” he said. “If the person is aged and has comorbidities, then we do not really consider it as one.”
Rao said the rise of deaths in 2020 and 2021 has come to the state’s notice but the department is yet to look into the issue since they’re “busy tackling the pandemic”.
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What the RTI reply conveys
MeeSeva was launched as an online e-governance service in 1999, with one centre, by the then N. Chandrababu Naidu government of united Andhra Pradesh. In 2001, it was launched on a larger scale as a pilot project.
As of now, there are about 4,500 MeeSeva centres in the state, according to state project manager Narasimha Rao Bajjuri from Telangana’s Electronic Services Delivery department.
A citizen usually obtains original death certificates from their local municipality. MeeSeva comes into the picture when the citizen wants a copy of the certificate for sundry purposes such as bank work etc, Gopal told ThePrint.
This means that the number of deaths, as evidenced by MeeSeva data, just refers to the number of fatalities for which death certificate copies were sought, Gopal said.
“Every death registered has a ‘unique death certificate number’ and that is the data we sought from MeeSeva via this RTI… It’s like, say, an Aadhaar number. So, all these death certificates issued are unique and there is no repetition of counts,” Gopal told ThePrint.
Among other things, the data also reveals that, in the first six months of 2021, the state had already recorded 80,631 deaths. This is a figure higher than the annual toll of 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
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Allegations of undercountinting have dogged Telangana’s Covid data since the start of the pandemic.
In April this year, the Telangana High Court, hearing multiple petitions related to Covid, pulled up the state for apparently hiding the real death count and said there should be display boards at crematoria and burial grounds depicting the true picture.
The same month, a group of doctors, led by Dr Lakshmi Lavanya Alapati, managing director of the American Institute of Diabetes and Endocrinology in Hyderabad, wrote to Chief Minister K. Chandrashekar Rao, urging him to increase testing and issue transparent health bulletins with real cases and death count.
Speaking to ThePrint, Alapati said “lapse in death reporting is a shame”.
“It is a lot in Telangana — deaths are almost 10 times more than what they report as official state count. Even if the government thinks they will lose credibility, it is fine, but what they should do is rewrite the deaths that were not counted before to give us the real picture,” she added.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)
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