The number of excess deaths reported during India’s Covid-19 pandemic could be up to 10 times the official Covid-19 death toll, a working paper published by the US-based Center for Global Development said.
Between 3.4 and 4.9 million estimated excess deaths were reported in India between Jan. 2020 and June 2021, while the Indian health ministry's reported death toll of approximately 400,000.
“We have no reason to hide deaths...many people have said the Indian government is hiding the death toll, the Indian government simply compiles and publishes the figures sent to us from state governments," Mansukh Mandaviya, India’s newly-appointed health minister, said in the upper house of parliament on Tuesday, in response to questions regarding the underreporting of deaths.
"The Indian government has never asked for deaths to be under-reported,” Mandaviya added.
The Center for Global Development study was based on three different estimates of excess deaths. The first estimate of 3.4 million is based on the excess deaths recorded by India’s civil registration system, that keeps a record of births and deaths, in seven states which account for about half of India’s total population.
The second estimate of four million deaths relies on India’s own seroprevalence surveys which show the proportion of the country’s population that has been infected with Covid-19, applying international infection fatality rates to this data.
The third estimate of 4.9 million excess deaths relies on the Center for the Monitoring of the Indian Economy's survey of more than 800,000 individuals across all states to capture mortality during the first wave and some of the second wave.
The study acknowledges that each of these three estimates have their limitations and that the number of excess deaths reported in the country do not equate to Covid-specific deaths. The authors specifically note that official death numbers tend to be underreported and that the data from the Center for the Monitoring the Indian Economy has not historically tracked closely with official mortality data.
However it finds that the first wave of the pandemic was “more lethal than is popularly believed” and their estimates show a higher number of excess deaths reported during the first wave than the second.
“Regardless of source and estimate, actual deaths during the Covid pandemic are likely to have been an order of magnitude greater than the official count,” the study noted.
“True deaths are likely to be in the several millions not hundreds of thousands, making this arguably India’s worst human tragedy since partition and independence,” it added.