Endemic malaise

| Updated on June 11, 2021

Credible data on Covid deaths is crucial for mapping the pandemic as well as combating it   -  KR Deepak

It’s only well that some States are waking up to the need to correctly report Covid deaths

There can be no denying the importance of credible data as a public good. In the context of Covid data — whether number of infections, tests or deaths — it also helps in getting a granular fix on the spread of the pandemic and the steps to be taken to beat it. Detailed knowledge of the geographical spread of the pandemic, the demographic profile of the dead and the medical conditions underlying their death would go a long way in dealing with a possible third wave — which is likely to hit those who escaped this surge. Realising this, a growing number of States are revising their death count, prodded in no small measure by courts. Following a 21-day investigation prompted by the Patna High Court, Bihar revised its death count by a staggering 72 per cent — from 5,458 cumulative deaths as on June 8 to 9,429 deaths as on June 9, including about 1,500 in the first wave. The State administration did well to set in motion an investigation process that included private hospitals and nursing homes not reporting Covid-related deaths, deaths in-transit and deaths at home due to Covid-related complications. On Wednesday, the Uttarakhand High Court asked the State government to do an audit of Covid-19 deaths during the second surge. Meanwhile, Maharashtra released a fresh tranche of its “reconciled” fatalities on Friday with the addition of 1,552 more deaths that took the cumulative death count in the State to 1,03,748. On April 28, the Telangana High Court observed that the State Government was under-reporting the actual number of deaths. In the past, Tamil Nadu and Delhi too have recounted their death figures. In Tamil Nadu, the numbers for Chennai were revised last July after a series of exposes by media organisations.

Poor reporting of death precedes Covid, and should not be put down to conspiracy theories. According to a 2018 report by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, India, medically certified deaths accounted for just 21.1 per cent of total registered deaths in respect of 35 States/UTs. Endeavours such as ‘Million Death Study’ undertaken by the experts in the Centre for Global Health Research at the University of Toronto have advocated methods such as verbal autopsies wherein trained volunteers in each district verbally derive the cause of death from the symptoms exhibited by the deceased.

In the absence of such systems, India’s Covid-19 death data, in quantitative and qualitative terms, have come under a shadow of doubt. To be fair, this problem is not restricted to India, though; several advanced countries are also under a shadow on accurate reporting of Covid deaths. Yet it is a relief that the authorities are waking up.

Published on June 11, 2021

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