Researchers suggest India could have seen 29 lakh excess deaths during COVID

Murad Banaji of Middlesex University, and Aashish Gupta of Harvard University used death registration data from 2019 — the last pre-pandemic year — as the basis to arrive at their estimates

An international team of researchers found that COVID-19 constituted 29 per cent of deaths from June 2020 to July 2021, corresponding to 3.2 million deaths | Representative Photo

India may have seen as many as 28 lakh to 29 lakh “excess deaths” during the COVID-19 pandemic from April 2020 to May 2021, according to a preprint – a version of a scientific article published before peer-review – by two 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.

Excess deaths don’t just mean unrecorded Covid fatalities. The figure may also reflect the ramifications of the disruptions in routine healthcare services caused by the pandemic.

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India’s official COVID toll stands at just over 4.48 lakh. This is not the first study to claim that the country’s official toll could be a vast underestimate. The government, however, has denied any significant undercount of pandemic-related deaths in the country.

The researchers derived their data from the Civil Registration System 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.

The authors then extrapolated these numbers to the national level.

“For the 12 states with available all-cause mortality data, we document an increase of 28 per cent in deaths during April 2020-May 2021 relative to expectations from 2019. This level of increase in mortality, if it applies nationally, would imply 2.8-2.9 million excess deaths,” the authors said.

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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 said.

“More limited data from June 2021 increases national estimates of excess deaths during April 2020-June 2021 to 3.8 million. With more optimistic or pessimistic assumptions, excess deaths during this period could credibly lie between 2.8 million and 5.2 million. We find that the scale of estimated excess deaths is broadly consistent with expectations based on seroprevalence data and international data on COVID-19 fatality rates. Moreover, there is a strong association between the timing of excess deaths, and of recorded COVID-19 deaths,” the researchers added.