ATHE REDOUBLE OF INDIA second wave of covid-19 recedes, the fact that fewer people are getting sick is not the only cause of relief. On June 7, Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister, announced a policy change that should make it easier to vaccinate more Indians. Instead of forcing individual states to compete for the purchase of vaccines, the central government will now purchase all vaccines itself and distribute 75% for free. The move could restore some confidence in Mr Modi’s leadership, after his first promises of a massive immunization program came up against the grim reality of rising deaths and dwindling vaccine stocks.
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Yet, as Indians emerge from lockdowns, it is not easy to emerge from the gloom. True, the official death toll has steadily declined over the past month, reaching half of its peak of over 4,000 a day in mid-May. But evidence continues to mount that the government figures represent a disturbing fraction of the actual figure. This gap does not only mean that India’s true level of suffering has been glossed over. This worsened the crisis, for example by causing the authorities to underestimate the demand for oxygen and medicine.
News organizations, including The Economist, along with independent epidemiologists, have speculated that India has suffered perhaps five to seven times as many ‘excess deaths’ than the official death toll from covid-19, currently just over 355,000 A recent article by Christopher Leffler of Virginia Commonwealth University in America analyzes data on excess mortality in different parts of India to emerge with a rough estimate of 1.8 to 2.4 million deaths from the disease since start of the pandemic. Another recent study from one state, Telangana, based on insurance claims, suggests the virus has killed up to six times more people than official figures admit.
These estimates have been extrapolated from patchy and often unreliable local government data, from business records, including staff fatalities, and from analysis of items such as obituaries. Evidence from another source, opinion polls, supports the higher numbers. One, conducted in May by Prashnam, a new survey group, asked 15,000 people, mostly in rural areas of northern Hindi-speaking states, whether anyone in their family or neighborhood had died of covid-19. One in six, or 17%, said yes.
Rajesh Jain, the founder of Prashnam, then compared this result with surveys in America that asked a similar question, including one conducted in March by the University of Chicago, which found that 19% of those polled had a close friend. or a relative who died in the pandemic. Given how close these results are, Jain said India’s overall death rate from Covid-19 would likely be closer to that in the United States, at 1,800 deaths per million people, than its figure. official 230 per million. If India’s rate matches that of the United States, the death toll in India so far would be around 2.5 million, he said.
An older survey group, CVoter, has been collecting daily data on covid-19 since June last year from a larger pool of respondents in ten languages across India. His team always asked a slightly different question than Prashnam’s, asking if any immediate family members had died from the virus. After India’s first wave in September, the number of people who said yes increased predictably, then lingered at around 1%. But in April and May, it skyrocketed, peaking at 7.4%. Given that India has some 250 million households, Yashwant Deshmukh, chairman of CVoter, calculates that the likely number of deaths from covid-19 in mid-May was around 1.83m. The trend line of the survey corresponds to the official figure, which suggests that the survey is broadly accurate (see graph).
Why is the Indian government, and its press, so firmly clinging to misleading official figures? Deshmukh, who says he’s very confident in his own numbers, partly blames reporters for what he describes as lack of reckoning. But he rejects the excuse that India’s many levels of government lack the capacity to generate solid statistics. “It’s not about capacity, it’s about intention,” he says. “And it’s not about the central government or any particular party. It is about deleting data at all levels, whoever is responsible. ” ■
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This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the title “Multiply by six”