India’s excessive death toll during the pandemic could represent 10 times the official toll of COVID-19, possibly making it the worst human tragedy in modern India, according to the most comprehensive research to date into the ravages of the virus in the South Asian country.

Most experts believe India’s official death toll of over 414,000 dead is a vast understatement, but the government has dismissed these concerns as exaggerated and misleading.

The report released on Tuesday estimated the number of excessive deaths – the gap between those recorded and those that would have been expected – at 3 million to 4.7 million between January 2020 and June 2021. “is likely to be of order. greater than the official count. “

the report was published by Arvind Subramanian, a former chief economic adviser to the Indian government, and two other researchers from the Center for Global Development, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank, and Harvard University.

He said the tally could have missed deaths in overwhelmed hospitals or while healthcare was disrupted, especially during the devastating virus outbreak earlier this year.

Worst tragedy since the partition of India

“The real deaths are likely to number in the millions, not the hundreds of thousands, making it arguably India’s worst human tragedy since partition and independence,” the report said.

The partition of the Indian subcontinent under British rule into independent India and Pakistan in 1947 resulted in the deaths of up to 1 million people as gangs of Hindus and Muslims killed each other.

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A Canadian expert said the report’s overall conclusions are probably correct, but its methodology is problematic.

“They did their best,” said Prabhat Jha, doctor and epidemiologist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, in an interview with CBC News. “They end up with a lot, well over 3 million dead, but they end up with [the] somewhat unlikely idea that the first viral wave, which took place in September of last year, was larger than the current viral wave, which ran from April to May or April to June. “

He said the researchers included data from unreliable sources, which would cause the Indian government to be reluctant to their findings.

Dr Prabhat Jha is Director of the Center for Global Health Research at St. Michael’s Hospital and Professor of Epidemiology at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto. (Toronto Health Unit)

Still, Jha said he agreed that the death toll in India is well over 400,000, which he said would mean the country has a death rate of around one-eighth of the rate. mortality in the United States.

“No one really seriously believes that India’s death rates from infection are so low.”

The virus count in India report used three calculation methods: data from the vital statistics system which records births and deaths in seven states, blood tests showing the prevalence of the virus in India as well as the rates of global deaths from COVID-19, and an economic survey of nearly 900,000 people do so three times a year.

The researchers warned that each method had weaknesses, such as the economic survey omitting causes of death.

So the researchers also looked at all-cause deaths and compared this data to mortality from previous years.

The researchers also warned that the virus’s prevalence and deaths from COVID-19 in the seven states they studied may not translate to all of India, as the virus could have spread further in urban states. rural and since the quality of health care varies considerably in India.

This drone image shows land in preparation for a mass cremation of COVID-19 victims in New Delhi on April 28, 2021. (Danish Siddiqui / Reuters)

Other countries are also believed to have underestimated deaths from the pandemic. But India is believed to have a bigger gap due to its second-largest global population of 1.4 billion and the fact that not all deaths were recorded even before the pandemic.

The Health Department did not immediately respond to an Associated Press request for comment on the report.

Dr Jacob John, who studies viruses at Christian Medical College in Vellore in southern India and was not part of the research, reviewed the report for the PA and said it highlighted the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the country’s under-prepared health system.

“This analysis reiterates the observations of other intrepid investigative journalists who have highlighted the massive undercoverage of deaths,” said Jacob.

“Collective complacency”

The report also estimated that nearly 2 million Indians died in the first outbreak of infections last year and said failure to “grasp the scale of the tragedy in real time” could have “engender a collective complacency which led to the horrors” of the outbreak earlier this year. .

In recent months, some Indian states have increased their death toll from COVID-19 after finding thousands of previously unreported cases, raising concerns that many more deaths have not been officially recorded.

Several Indian journalists have also published higher figures from some states using government data. Scientists say this new information is helping them better understand how COVID-19 spread in India.

Health workers attend to a patient at the Nesco Jumbo COVID-19 center in Mumbai on July 5, 2021. (Rafiq Maqbool / The Associated Press)

Murad Banaji, who studies mathematics at Middlesex University and has looked at COVID-19 mortality figures in India, said recent data has confirmed some of the underestimation suspicions. Banaji said the new data also shows that the virus was not limited to urban centers, as contemporary reports indicated, and villages in India were also badly affected.

“One question we should ask ourselves is whether some of these deaths were preventable,” he said.

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