India responds after WHO accuses it of world’s worst undercounting of Covid deaths

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In this aerial picture taken on April 26, 2021, family members and relatives stand around the body of a victim who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus at a cremation ground in New Delhi (AFP via Getty Images)
In this aerial picture taken on April 26, 2021, family members and relatives stand around the body of a victim who died of the Covid-19 coronavirus at a cremation ground in New Delhi (AFP via Getty Images)

India’s federal health ministry has sharply objected to the Covid-related death toll pegged by the World Health Organisation, which is at least 10 times higher than the number claimed by Delhi.

Indian has stated that the global health body “conveniently chose to ignore the available data it submitted.”

As per India’s official data, a total of 481,000 Covid-19 deaths were recorded for 2020-21.

But, the WHO has estimated nearly 4.75 million deaths in India since 2020, saying that these casualties are linked to the Covid pandemic — either directly or indirectly through the impact of infection’s outbreak on the health infrastructure which collapsed during the Delta wave in Apri and May last year.

Officials from the ministry of health and family welfare said that the country has been “consistently objecting to the methodology adopted by WHO to project excess mortality estimates based on mathematical models.”

“Despite India’s objection to the process, methodology and outcome of this modelling exercise, WHO has released the excess mortality estimates without adequately addressing India’s concerns,” the officials said in a statement released on Thursday.

The ministry officials said the Modi administration has consistently questioned WHO’s extraction of data for 17 Indian states from websites and media reports which were also used in the mathematical method used to arrive at the 4.75 million statistics.

“This reflects a statistically unsound and scientifically questionable methodology of data collection for making excess mortality projections in case of India,” the officials said in a statement.

According to WHO, the excess deaths have been calculated after subtracting the number of deaths that have taken place from the total number of deaths that would have been expected in the absence of the Covid pandemic.

Contradicting the method’s applicability in India, the ministry said that the country’s size, diversity and population of 1.3 billion implied that the “one size fits all” approach and model cannot be applied in this case.

The WHO’s data chief Samira Asma said that the health body held a series of consultations with New Delhi and would continue "to engage with colleagues from India".

However, multiple reports and opposition leaders in India have countered the official death toll presented by the Modi administration.

“47 lakh [4.7 million] Indians died due to the Covid pandemic. NOT 4.8 lakh as claimed by the Govt. Science doesn’t LIE. Modi does. Respect families who’ve lost loved ones. Support them with the mandated ₹4 lakh compensation,” Indian opposition leader from Congress Rahul Gandhi said on Friday.

Experts have pointed out that the bonafide death toll due to Covid in India, like many other countries, may not be ever be known due to poor record maintenance.

Researchers have said that India has also not made the basic pandemic data available, which requires the officials to show details of cases, total hospitalisations, accurate deaths based on age, sex and vaccination status which cripples data collection and interpretation.

“In any other country, the mismanagement of COVID and then lying about the deaths would have led the govt to fall. Here, Modi has denied Oxygen deaths, lied about mortality and the is busy doing his PR instead of Q him,” said journalist Vidya Krishnan, who has been tracking the pandemic in the country.

The spread of Delta variant in India last summer resulted in a grim situation with many running from pillar to post to secure oxygen cylinders for infected members. Crematoriums were filled to the brim with the dead and lack of beds in hospitals confirmed a total collapse of India’s health infrastructure.

Dozens of bodies, suspected to be of Covid-19 patients, had washed up on the banks of India’s sacred river Ganges in May last year.

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