India is in the middle of its second wave and our social media feeds have morphed into SOS helplines with citizens running 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 understand why COVID-19 wasn’t killing the natives in sufficient numbers, have made a triumphant comeback. With intrusive pictures of burning pyres that’d shame vultures, the ecosystem that lives for poverty porn is back with many of them claiming that India is grossly underreporting the number of its COVID-19 deaths.
John Burn-Murdoch of the Financial Times even claimed that the “numbers of Covid victims who have been cremated are 10x larger than official Covid death counts in same areas”.
Now, if you claim that the death toll is twice the government figure, it’s still understandable but if one claims it’s 10 times the number, it fails to pass the basic 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 City was accused of underreporting 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 in the state up from 8,500 to nearly 15,000.
So, it’s quite natural that if one digs deeper, one will find that state governments are underreporting deaths. But that’s not the point. This piece doesn’t carry a brief for any government, nor is it an apologia to reduce the death count. The only thing we are bothered about is the truth.
Now let’s examine the lofty claim that the death rate is 10 times what’s being officially reported. For starters, the criticism of the government’s nefarious schemes has to be consistent. Critics would’ve 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, which have a plethora of different political parties, somehow managed to come together on the same page and keep the official numbers down.
And they somehow managed to do so under immense scrutiny from NGOs, media, activists, and the foreign press.
Also, numbers don’t lie.
Also, just to give you some perspective, the current number of deaths as of this moment is 1,98,899. If the number was 10 times, it’d suggest that 20 lakh (or 2 million) people in India had succumbed to COVID-19.
Even a flat earther would think twice before making the aforementioned claim.
By the way, we had the same narrative last year during the 1st wave albeit with a different religion. In 2020 we were flooded with stories of the Muslim burial grounds being overburdened and running out of space and there are dead bodies everywhere.
So is it possible that there were underreported deaths during the 1st wave? Yes, but the key question is by how much? If it was 10 times do you understand the amount of time & in the case of Muslims the amount of space that would be required to bury people? By the way, such stories had cropped up in Mumbai too. But then after a while, it was clear that the chaos was partly because of the spike (which is expected), but, it was primarily because burial grounds were overburdened with COVID-19 protocols.
Another way to decipher all of this is to look at the death rates of 2018 to 2020. We can study the trends and wherever we find gaps we can try to use basic logic to decipher what is happening. So what points should be considered to break this down?
- What is the spike in terms of absolute numbers of deaths?
- In which period did this spike happen?
- Can these numbers be given to COVID completely? If yes, why?
If someone says Yes to point 3 what they are trying to say is that every extra death in India has happened only because of COVID!!! Does that mean deaths by other causes are reported perfectly? Of course, the third point is outrageous, since it’s impossible to believe that Indians have become immune to every other disease.
Let’s look at the data. In Mumbai, 21,000 more deaths (around 23%) were reported in the 2020 calendar year compared to 2019. It was 1,11,942 in 2020 and 91,223 in 2019. The month of May 2020 had by far the highest amount of deaths registered (14328) compared to 7335 deaths from May 2019.
Now here are some points that we should remember when we further analyse this data:
- 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%.
- 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 various other causes. For eg, during the 1st wave, the entire health infrastructure had collapsed and patients suffering from various other 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 of deaths by suicides. To get a real picture one might have to look at the age-wise distribution to get an even better idea (COVID-19 does tend to harm the 60 and above age group more).
The official COVID-19 fatality number of Mumbai was 11,116 for the year 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 2 times the official count.
Another point we need to remember in the case of Mumbai is that the 1st wave had hit the slums disproportionately more than the non-slums. This can be seen by looking at the sero survey conducted by BMC that showed 57% of the people in slums had antibodies to Covid-19 as against 16% in non-slum pockets. How do we know whether the sero survey was right? Well during the second wave the infection spread is completely lopsided in comparison to the 1st wave. Unlike the 1st wave, the 2nd wave in Mumbai has found 90% are concentrated in high-rise buildings while slums account for just 10%. 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. The state of Kerala released its all cause-mortality data and as per that Kerala 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 2nd highest number of infections in the entire country.
If one was to consider all these factors the only rational conclusion that can be derived is that the deaths at most could be 2 times what the governments (state and central) claim. It cannot be beyond that. And if someone wants to make the 10 times claim then they should provide the evidence for the same.
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’ 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 Covid-19 mortality numbers for 2021 would be looking at the annual death data and then trying to make sense out of that after a year in 2022.
As Carl Sagan once said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Nothing substantiates the 10 times claims and stories of crematoriums might excite a naïve audience back home, but it certainly doesn’t pass the muster.
In fact, one would’ve to use a metaphorical blade of two philosophical razors to truly slice through the ridiculous claims of the death porn enthusiasts: 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.
Note: This article was originally published on the blog of the author