A report of the UN agency that had miserably failed to announce that Covid-19 was a global pandemic in time, the World Health Organisation (WHO), said yesterday that India had witnessed 4.7 million “excess” Covid-19 deaths than what it officially acknowledged. Saying the report did not stand any “logic or fact”, the chief of the country’s Covid Working Group called it “worrisome”.
Dr NK Arora, chief of India’s Covid Working Group, said that while there could be a 10-20% discrepancy, India’s robust and accurate death registration system, the Civil Registration System (CRS), ensured that a majority of virus-related deaths were covered.
In a report released yesterday, the WHO, which had announced that the China-origin coronavirus had caused a global pandemic in February 2020 while the virus was detected as early as mid-2019, had said between January 2020 and December 2021, there were 4.7 million “excess” Covid deaths in India — almost a third of Covid deaths globally, 10 times the official figures the country officially recognised. The global figure, according to the WHO, was 15 million — more than double the official figure of 6 million.
Calling the report “preposterous and untenable”, Dr Arora said,” In 2018, around 85-88% of deaths were covered. In 2020, 98-99% of the deaths were covered. In 2018 and 2019, seven lakh deaths additional took place. Do we say that all were Covid? Out of the excess 4.6 lakh, 1.45 were the reported deaths. Those three lakh deaths took place due to other reasons. Even if we say 4 lakh deaths were extra, still it does not fit into the WHO estimates”.
Asked if states could have failed to report deaths to the Centre, Dr Arora said, “There was lag and you know after the Supreme Court ruling, every state has been reporting their backlog deaths which were missed out earlier, and now they are part of the current system. Many times the numbers in Kerala and other well-performing states, additional deaths have been added up to the overall numbers. India is a huge country, so there will be some missing, but not “10 times” as is being reported”.
“The other thing is if it was so much then people should have swamped us because the Indian definition of Covid is any deaths occurring within one month as diagnosed as Covid. But nothing like that has happened. Relatives of 40 lakh people have not come to claim compensation. So there are several inconsistencies in the WHO report,” he added.
Dr Arora said that the WHO had dismissed India’s data and relied on its own statistical models, despite India having trustworthy death registration systems. “There may be missing of some deaths – 5-15 deaths since everything is not recorded, but the way WHO has put us in Tier 2 countries where no data is available is not right,” he said.
Countries categorized as Tier 2 include countries for which WHO does not have access to the complete data and thus requires the use of alternative data sources or the application of scaling factors to generate the national aggregate.
“We have a robust system. There has been a gradual increase in the number of deaths. Even if we have missed 10-15% of deaths, there can’t be anything like WHO has pointed out. Our deaths per million are very less. In 2020, journals predicted doom for us. They said we will take five years to immunize our one billion population, but this has been proved wrong,” he added.
India has strongly refuted the World Health Organisation’s use of the mathematical model to calculate the number of Covid deaths, saying the “figure is totally removed from reality”. Contending that the country has an “extremely robust” system of births and deaths registration, the Union health ministry, in its rebuttal, called the WHO’s system of data collection “statistically unsound and scientifically questionable”.
Top health experts in the country, ICMR Director General Balram Bhargava, Niti Aayog Member (Health) V K Paul and AIIMS Director Randeep Guleria, have also expressed disappointment over the global health body’s “one-size-fits-all” approach to arrive at the figure.
Dr VK Paul said these kinds of assumptions “to put us in poor light is not desirable”.
Assuring the country that the government has nothing to hide, Dr Paul said there is still an active process by which Covid deaths are being reconciled.
“Our numbers are there and we have a robust system from the ground. We, therefore, do not accept these numbers, we reject them,” he said.
Dr Balram Bhargava said there was no definition of Covid deaths.
Raised objections to the WHO report, Dr Randeep Guleria said, “I’ll give three broad reasons for that. One is that India has a very robust system of birth and death registration and that data is available. WHO has not used that data. The second important issue is the data that WHO used is more hearsay evidence or what has been there in the media or from unconfirmed sources. That data itself is questionable. To do modelling on that data is not correct and it’s not scientifically the right, especially when you have data,” he said.
Another issue is that India has been very liberal in offering compensation to people who have died from Covid-19 and that has been there in a very open manner, Dr Guleria said.
The WHO happens to be the UN organisation, the head of which, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, was enjoying Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hospitality when the world had long begun reeling under the virus released by the director-general’s host.