New Delhi: There might have been as many as 28 lakh-29 lakh “excess deaths” in India during the Covid pandemic from April 2020 to May 2021, a preprint or non-peer-reviewed study by two researchers has said.
Researchers Murad Banaji of Middlesex University, UK, and Aashish Gupta of Harvard University, US, used death registration data from 2019 — the last pre-pandemic year — as the basis to arrive at their estimates. The study was uploaded 30 September on MedRxiv, “a free online archive and distribution server for complete but unpublished manuscripts (preprints) in the medical, clinical, and related health sciences”.
Excess deaths don’t just mean unrecorded Covid fatalities, a fact also noted by the authors. The figure may also reflect the ramifications of the disruptions on routine healthcare services caused by much of the focus shifting to checking the pandemic — for example, the death of severely ill non-Covid patients who couldn’t access the requisite healthcare.
India’s official Covid toll stands at just over 4.48 lakh, but the researchers suggest this may be an undercount.
While multiple studies have claimed India’s official Covid toll may be a vast underestimate, the Government of India has denied any significant undercount of pandemic-related deaths in the country.
The researchers derived their data from the Civil Registration System (CRS) — which records all births and deaths, with states/UTs collecting raw data before it is eventually collated by the Registrar General of India — of 12 states comprising about 60 per cent of the country’s population.
These are: : Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.
These states were chosen because they had a partial or complete record of registered deaths from January 2018 to May 2021.
Additionally, the authors note, these 12 states also had a higher prevalence of recording deaths. In 2019, on average, these states completed registration for 92 per cent of deaths compared to the national average of 78 per cent, they say.
The study finds that the 12 states recorded 13 lakh more death registrations during the pandemic period (April 2020 to May 2021), which is about 27 per cent more than expected based on 2019 data.
Extrapolating these numbers to the national level, the authors say India’s excess deaths could be anywhere between 28 lakh and 29 lakh during the aforementioned period.
Additionally, the authors studied CRS data for June 2021 that was only available for three states, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab and Karnataka. These states recorded a 123 per cent jump in death registrations compared to June 2019 levels, they say.
“Extending these estimates to June using more limited data we estimate around 3.8M excess deaths during April 2020-June 2021,” the study adds.
However, they point out that the excess deaths in June could probably be higher because of registration delays in May, when the second wave of Covid-19 was at its peak.
“This suggests that delays in registration following the enormous mortality surge in May could be at least partly responsible for the high June excess deaths,” the study adds.
Acknowledging that not all excess deaths can be attributed to Covid, the study says, “This suggests that the majority of these deaths reflect consequences of the pandemic, rather than underlying trends in mortality or death registration. This is not to say that these were all deaths from Covid-19: there may, indeed, have been some non-Covid-19 excess deaths. However, comparing the excess deaths estimates to expectations of Covid-19 mortality based on disease spread suggests that the majority of excess deaths were likely from Covid-19.”
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)