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When India’s Arguments Against COVID Report Left WHO Scientists ‘Frustrated’

When India’s Arguments Against COVID Report Left WHO Scientists ‘Frustrated’

Relatives mourn a man who died due to COVID-19, at a crematorium in New Delhi, June 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Estimates by the WHO published last week have sent shockwaves all across the globe, particularly in India. According to the WHO, 47 lakh Indians died due to COVID in the years 2020 and 2021. That’s nearly 10-times the Indian government’s official COVID death toll.

The Indian government’s response to this disclosure by the WHO has been on expected lines. It has dismissed these estimates by questioning the very method used to arrive at them. As part of an episode of his programme ‘Checks and Balance’ for The Wire, Saahil Murli Menghani spoke to the head of the WHO’s technical advisory group, Jonathan Wakefield, who with his team of scientists worked for over a year to draw up the UN body’s estimates.

Wakefield’s clarifications make for a fact-check against the Narendra Modi government’s claims – including how government officials’ response left scientists frustrated and considering releasing the data without the WHO’s endorsement. Wakefield also said that the method that the Indian government has called into question wasn’t applied to the India part of the data, and that the government had been informed of the actual method six months in advance.

The interview was conducted over a video call. The questions are in bold. The editor’s modifications, if any, have been added within square brackets. The last question and answer were left out because they were clarificatory.

The Indian government, Jonathan, has rubbished your estimates. And the government’s main argument is to question the method you have used. Is the government’s response to your estimates correct or is there a flaw even in that?

J.W.: We estimated excess mortality for every country in the world. There were only two groups of countries we didn’t have full data from. Some countries we had full mortality data from. And from some countries we had absolutely no data. Those countries with one part of the data, we took one approach. And for those countries – a very small number of countries, India being one – we had sub-national data. In India’s case, we had data from 17 states and that’s the data we used. So the majority of criticism that the Indian government put out is concerned with the first approach – which we didn’t use for India.

So, there are two models you used to arrive at these estimates. One is Model A for a certain group of countries and another is Model B for another set of countries. You have used model B for India but the govt of India has rubbished your estimates based on Model A, which you in fact have not used with India. Is that correct?

Yeah. That’s absolutely correct. Yeah.

That’s a big blunder by the Government of India then.

I would not use the word ‘blunder’. The Indian government has been repeatedly told of the model we used, since December last year. The WHO sent out multiple emails of the methodology. There are methodological documents  placed for over six months now and those were sent to India, so I don’t understand why they have been saying these things about the methodology when they know that’s not the methodology we have used.

You are making a very important point. You are saying that it wasn’t a one-off interaction with the Indian government but that there were multiple exchanges over emails over a period of six months, where the government was told repeatedly about the exact methods that  you have used. So there is absolutely no scope for confusion there.

No, there shouldn’t. There really shouldn’t be.

Is it true that your data was ready much earlier and that it was because of stiff resistance by many countries, particularly India, that it got delayed until May of 2022?

Yeah. We were ready to go back in December. It is primarily due to India. The Indian government’s unhappiness. That’s why the delay occurred multiple times.

One of your team members, Ariel Karlinsky, who worked with you to come up with these estimates, has said, and I quote, “There were nonsensical arguments from the Indian side”. Could you please elaborate on what these “nonsensical” arguments were?

Their complaints were primarily about the methodology but it wasn’t the method we used. I don’t want to get dragged into political arguments because that’s above my pay grade. I’m just a statistician. The arguments were not scientific arguments. They are willfully misunderstanding the methodological documents we sent to them.

I believe in this work. I don’t want to be lost here. I want to continue working on that. I don’t want to get involved in politics. I have been very frustrated. I believe these estimates are useful and to have them delayed for all these months for political reasons rather than scientific reasons – that’s very frustrating.

Is it true that all the independent scientists who were working on this were at some point fed up by the delays and got so frustrated that they decided to just go ahead and publish these estimates, even without the WHO’s endorsement?

I was certainly frustrated and so was my technical advisory group. Yeah, we were having conversations constantly with the WHO on this. There was talk of delaying the estimates by years. That wasn’t going to happen because all the members of this technical advisory group are not paid to do this. We do this in our own time. We all put a lot of time and energy into this. … We all believe in this.

The whole point of this was that people who die and their relatives – there is a moral obligation to get these numbers out there [to them]. There was some discussion among us to publish it without the WHO’s endorsement, but thankfully that didn’t happen.

[Interlude: India’s Narendra Modi government has been calling the WHO’s methodology questionable and has cited the country’s Civil Registration System (CRS). In the CRS, births and deaths are recorded under the Registration of Birth and Death Act 1969. Under this, the deaths are first recorded in physical registers at the local gram panchayats and municipal levels. This data is then gradually fed digitally into a central database. Because of the scale of the activity, the nationwide numbers are usually published the following year.

The India government had not released this crucial data for 2020 in 2021 and the data for 2021 in 2022. But the government decided to release the 2020 data collected by the CRS just two days before the WHO report was due to be published. The Indian government has still not released the 2021 data.

According to the 2020 CRS data, there were 8.3 lakh excess deaths in 2020, over the average number of deaths in the previous two years. Wakefield said this is almost similar to the WHO’s estimate for 2020 as well. He also said that it is a clear indicator that if India released its 2021 death data – the year India experienced its deadly second wave driven by the delta variant – then the Indian government’s own figures would be consistent with the WHO’s estimate of 47 lakh excess deaths. So why the current hungama?]

J.W.: There have been a number of studies that have estimated the toll of the pandemic in India using other data sources. We are all in the same ballpark. We are all consistently giving around the same number. … We estimated [the excess deaths in India in 2020] at 8,30,000. Our figure … is very consistent with the data released by India. So I was quite happy that India released that data, because it gave more credibility to our estimates I believe. Because it shows our 2020 estimate was pretty accurate.

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