CONCEALING COVID-19 deaths is anti-people. It saves the exchequer some money that would have been otherwise given as compensation, and the government saves itself from the burden of fixing accountability for the deaths which may necessitate the guilty to be put into jails. The greatest beneficiary of this are the rulers, since it veils their failures, giving room for them to boastfully air false claims of their good governance, which in turn boosts their political prospects.
This is the general trend not only in India but across the world. However, for India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s premiership, it is the worst, if we are to believe a forthcoming World Health Organization [WHO] report, which the Indian government has not only objected to, but tried to stall the effort of the organization to make COVID-19 deaths public. It should not be out of place to mention here that the Modi government has avoided giving compensation to the perished migrant workers during COVID-19 lockdowns by informing the Parliament of India that the Centre has no data about their deaths. And when the case of compensation came to the Supreme Court of India, the Centre initially tried not to give any, but had to agree, when it ruled that under the Disaster Management Act, the victims were entitled for compensation.
The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, in a bid to stall the forthcoming report of the WHO, has raised objections relating to the methodology which it has adopted, but has quickly been refuted on behalf of the researchers computing the global death due to COVID-19 saying the India’s assertions are “inaccurate”. India had raised the objections publicly the same day on April 16, when the New York Times [NYT] had published an article titled India is Stalling the WHO’s Efforts to Make Global Covid Death toll public. The reason of delay of the report for months has been reportedly because of India lobbying for not making the figures public, and India disputing the calculation of actual deaths.
The greatest beneficiary of this are the rulers, since it veils their failures, giving room for them to boastfully air false claims of their good governance, which in turn boosts their political prospects.
According to the NYT report, the WHO has calculated that 15 million people have died of COVID-19 by the end of 2021, though the WHO is yet to release the report. The figure is far more than double than the officially reported figure of only about six million. It states that the additional deaths are about nine million, over a third of which occurred in India. The Modi government stands by its own COVID death count of 520,000, while according to the NYT report, the WHO figure will be at least four million, almost eight times the official figure. If it is correct, the WHO figure would give India the highest death tally in the world. Why the Modi government is trying to stall the report from coming out in public, is thus easily explainable.
The Modi government’s chief objection is that the WHO’s calculations are computed using a statistical model that does not account for the size and variation in the country. India said that the WHO methodology classified countries into Tier 1 and Tier 2 countries, and used mortality figures from Tier 1 and used them on Tier 2 countries. India also objected to the use of ‘global covariates’ such as monthly temperature, and monthly average deaths and income.
India’s objection was refuted by John Wakefield, a member of the Technical Advisory Group of WHO on this issue, as inaccurate. “We stress that for India, the global predictive covariate model is not used and so the estimates of excess mortality are based on data from India only,” the research paper methodology says. India only had data from 17 states and no national all-cause mortality number, and – for 2021 – only data for a few months is available. The paper also says that data for India was sourced from the registered number of deaths at the state and union territory levels that was either reported directly by the states through official reports and automatic vital registration, or by journalists who obtained death registration information through requests under the Right to Information Act.
In India, it is a well-known fact the government data regarding deaths as a result of COVID-19, or due to lack of oxygen, or due to co-morbidities, has always been suspect, which attracted criticism in the past from all political parties and experts. People in general believe actual deaths are much more than reported. There was a time when the very methodology circular and guidelines issued for counting deaths were alleged to have prevented the states or medical professionals from declaring many deaths by COVID-19. The questionable methodology of the Centre was aggressively debated for a long time and then suppressed. Moreover, only those deaths were generally reported that occurred in hospitals. The deaths that occurred outside the hospital framework were by and large unreported. In this background, the forthcoming report by the WHO acquires a special significance.
If it is correct, the WHO figure would give India the highest death tally in the world. Why the Modi government is trying to stall the report from coming out in public, is thus easily explainable.
The Modi government has always objected to the reports of deaths that did not conform to the official data. There was also a time when media was given instructions to take only the official data, and actions were also taken against journalists who reported from other sources for rumour mongering. It should also be mentioned that the Modi government also objected to a study by The Lancet published last month that said India accounted for around 20 per cent of the global excess deaths by December 31, 2021. It put India’s death toll at 4 million, which is close to the WHO figure yet to be made public. The Modi government said that the report was based on numbers from unauthenticated sources. In February, India criticized the study published in the ‘Science’ journal that put the real death toll seven to eight times the official figure.
As per the NYT report, India refused to cooperate in the WHO effort to make the data on COVID-19 deaths and to make it public, which was to be published in January but has continuously been deferred. It is now likely to be published in April. In the meantime it would be graceful for the Modi government to come out with the actual death figure, fix accountability, and give compensation for all deaths under law. (IPA Service)