India is in the middle of its second wave of the coronavirus pandemic. Our social media feeds have morphed into SOS helplines with citizens running from pillar to post to arrange medicines and oxygen cylinders. Amid this, the pack of foreign correspondents and their desi counterparts, who in the first wave couldn’t explain India’s low death rates, have made a triumphant comeback, with many of them claiming that India is grossly underreporting its Covid-19 death numbers now.
As per John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times, who put together data for seven districts through news reports, the “numbers of Covid victims who have been cremated are 10x larger than official Covid death counts in same areas.”
Now, if your claim is that the Covid death toll in India is twice the government figure, it’s still understandable. But to claim it is 10 times the number fails to pass the smell test.
To begin with, the under-reported death figures aren’t part of some grand global conspiracy. This has been happening and will continue to happen across the globe. For example, New York was accused of under-reporting its nursing home deaths by a few thousand that were added to the tally in early February 2021. This pushed their total nursing home resident deaths up from 8,500 to nearly 15,000.
So, if one digs deeper for such stories in India, they will find that state governments are underreporting deaths. But that’s not the point. This is not a brief for any government, nor is it an apologia to reduce the death count. The only thing I am bothered about is the truth.
So, should we be taking the ‘ten times the number of deaths’ claims seriously?
What critics miss
For starters, the criticism of the government’s nefarious schemes has to be consistent. Critics would have us believe that the same governments (state and central), which can’t provide basic facilities during the second wave, are somehow Machiavellian enough to under-count death rates by a factor of 10.
If the death count was actually 10 times, it’d suggest that both state and central governments somehow managed to come together on the same page and succeeded in keeping the official numbers down. And they managed to do so under immense scrutiny from NGOs, media, activists, and the foreign press.
Just to give some perspective, the official death toll as of 28 April is 2,04,812. If the actual figure was 10 times, it’d mean that more than 20 lakh (or 2 million) people in India have succumbed to Covid-19.
We had the same narrative last year during the first wave. Between April and July 2020, there were several reports about Muslim burial grounds being overburdened and running out of space. So it is possible that there were under-reported deaths during the first wave too. But the key question is, by how much?
Such stories had cropped up from Mumbai as well. But after a while, it was clear that the chaos was partly because of the spike (which is expected), but primarily because burial grounds were overburdened with Covid-19 protocols.
Another way is to look at the death rates of 2018-2020, while ascertaining three things.
- What is the spike in terms of absolute number of deaths?
- In which period did this spike happen?
- Can these numbers be attributed to Covid completely?
If someone says ‘Yes’ to the third question, what they are saying is that every additional death in India has happened only because of Covid, which is outrageous, because it’s impossible that Indians have become immune to every other disease.
Present hard numbers
Let’s look at the data. In Mumbai, 20,719 more deaths (around 23 per cent) were reported in the 2020 calendar year compared to 2019. It was 1,11,942 in 2020 and 91,223 in 2019. May 2020 had the highest number of deaths registered (14,328) compared to 7,335 deaths in May 2019.
Now, when we calculate the excess mortality data we must keep in mind the standard year-on-year rise of deaths by 2 to 2.5 per cent.
One must also remember that these are the total number of deaths in the whole year. These numbers do not indicate or consider deaths by other causes. For example, during the first wave, the entire health infrastructure had collapsed and patients suffering from various chronic illnesses like cancer, kidney failure, hypertension, and diabetes were denied basic healthcare access. Also, the lockdown had temporarily reduced the rate of deaths by road accidents for a while, but it had also resulted in an increase in deaths by suicide. To get the real picture, one might have to look at the age-wise distribution (Covid-19 does tend to harm those aged 60 and above more).
The official Covid-19 fatality figure of Mumbai was 11,116 for 2020. So when we take points number 1 and 2 into consideration and try to break down the excess number of deaths, it would be fewer or not more than two times the official count.
Another point we need to remember in the case of Mumbai is that the first wave had hit the slums disproportionately. This can be seen by looking at the sero survey conducted by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), which showed that 57 per cent of the people in slums had antibodies to Covid-19 as against 16 per cent in non-slum pockets. How do we know whether the sero survey was right? Well, during the second wave, the spread of the infection is completely lopsided in comparison to the first wave — 90 per cent cases are concentrated in high-rise buildings while slums account for just 10 per cent. Slum-dwellers do not have the same level of access to quality healthcare in comparison to non-slum dwellers. This is another factor that should be considered when we try to understand the overall mortality narrative.
Let us consider another state for our analysis. Kerala released its all-cause mortality data, according to which, the state recorded over 16,000 fewer deaths in 2020 compared to the average of the previous five years. The point to be noted here is that Kerala had and still has the second highest number of infections in India.
What it tells us
If one was to consider all these factors, the only rational conclusion that can be derived is that the number of Covid-related deaths in India could be two times what the governments (state and central) claim. It cannot be beyond that. And if someone wants to make the ‘10 times’ claim for the whole nation, then they should provide evidence for it.
Taking some news reports and amplifying them to suggest the entire country is crumbling is not data crunching, it’s simply pandering to the ‘bhay ka mahaul’ (atmosphere of fear) narrative without giving facts to substantiate it. In a huge country like India, it’s always possible to find any story to fit one’s narrative but that doesn’t make it the universal truth.
The only way to figure out the real numbers would be by looking at the annual death data and then trying to make sense out of that after a year.
As Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Nothing substantiates the 10 times claim, and stories of crematoriums might be effective in setting a narrative, but they certainly don’t pass muster.
In fact, one would’ve to use a metaphorical blade of two philosophical razors to truly slice through the ridiculous claims: Hitchen’s and Hanlon’s. While Hitchen’s states that what can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence, Hanlon’s states: “Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity.”
A close observation would show that we can reject the claims simply because they are being made either from malice or stupidity, neither of which is a great skill for data observation.
The author is an entrepreneur from Mumbai and hosts the Cārvāka podcast. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant Dixit)