COVID Deaths: A WHOdunit

TUSHAR CHARAN*

The latest WHO report on Covid deaths in India is a suspenseful whodunit. The World Health Organisation says  the number of Indians who died due to Covid-19 was over 47 million which is 10 times higher than the figure released by the Modi government. The difference in numbers is staggering; it has sent the government fuming in anger over a ‘fallacious’ report of an ‘ill-informed’ world body.

Perhaps, the ‘New India’ wants to be known for its aggressiveness which has been very much in evidence at home and abroad.  Indian diplomats have been giving it left and right to delegates at the UN and even friendly foreign countries are ticked off with a homily. 

The WHO report came shortly after the prime minister had told a gathering of world economic leaders that India’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic was a success story even as many developed nations, including the US, were struggling to cope with it.  

Some time ago, the government was embarrassed when media—including the pro-government one- reported that the number of people claiming compensation for Covid deaths in their families was far in excess of the number of Covid deaths officially admitted.

While it was not really surprising, the government tried to escape from allegations of hiding figures by alleging that ‘corruption’ was involved. That may be partly true.

The WHO method of arriving at its figure was described as flawed by the government of India—a charge that is now inevitably leveled whenever an international body comes out with statistics unflattering to India. The WHO conclusions were questioned by some other countries notably Pakistan, Bangladesh and China; Clearly the WHO went beyond the official data banks and official sources.

A Lancet report too spoke of a number close to the WHO figure on Covid deaths in India which had returned in a more virulent and deadly form after the first wave in 2020. The prime minister had promised to defeat coronavirus in ’fifty days’ after it arrived in early 2020. Among the weapons he used were striking steel plates and torchlight. His timeline was reminiscent of the promise he had made on eliminating black money, corruption and terror, while enforcing demonetization on a four-hour notice.    

The government’s outburst at WHO is understandable but other than the officials and the ruling party members, few will contest that India has grossly undercounted the citizens who died due to Covid or diseases related to it because the health infrastructure was unable to attend to the affected.

The world may have watched with dismay scenes of thousands of bodies floating in the holy Ganga or half-buried along the river bed during the second wave of Covid-19. The ever-helpful media said that releasing dead bodies in the river has been an old Indian tradition; it has nothing to do with the Covid pandemic.

Let it be admitted that under-reporting the number of Covid deaths is not confined to India. Many countries, rich and poor, have tried to underplay the extent of lives lost due to the pandemic. But why the controversy over the number of Covid victims in India does not go away is that there is not only an ocean of difference between the official figure of deaths and what is widely assumed to be the actual figure. The two waves of Covid had exposed an incredible breakdown in providing timely care to the victims, underlined by oxygen shortage during the second wave.

The government only damaged its credibility further by denying what everyone could see. Many ‘important’ people died due to paucity of oxygen cylinders. There was an acute shortage of hospital beds though, to be fair, it may be admitted that the suddenness and the scale of the pandemic’s arrival had found healthcare systems in several countries also grossly inadequate.

But that cannot shift the blame from the inadequacies witnessed in India in fighting the curse of a virus that originated in China. Nor can it be advanced to counter the WHO figures.

Certain factors unique to India strengthen the impression that the government   was very economical on Covid deaths. It is an undeniable fact that there was   a nation-wide shortage of hospital beds and health staff which saw a very large number of Covid victims dying in their homes or even on the streets.  It can be said with certainty that the majority of deaths in rural areas and smaller towns would not have been registered as Covid deaths. The patchy death registration system in India would rule out listing of the exact cause of death.

It is believed that while most deaths in India occur at home, especially in rural areas, nearly 70 per cent of deaths are not certified by a doctor. In ‘backward’ states of the country it is almost the rule.

Mishandling of the pandemic also included the world’s largest foot march by migrant workers witnessed just after a nation-wide lockdown was announced, again on a four-hour notice. (SAT)

*The writer is a regular contributor