Representative image of medical workers transporting the body of a person who died due to COVID-19. Photo: PTI
New Delhi: According to a new conservative estimate, there may have been nearly five-times more COVID-19 deaths in April and May 2021 in Chhattisgarh, The Hindu reported.
The report – latest in a series by the newspaper to assess ‘excess deaths’ in different states, registered by the country’s civil registration system – found that during the peak of the second wave of COVID-19, Chhattisgarh registered 43,062 more deaths than the average for the same period in past years. This is 4.85-times higher than the official COVID-19 death toll of 8,878 for April and May 2021, The Hindu reported.
For the first three months of 2021, there were 34,897 excess deaths, while the official COVID-19 deaths were 9,677. This would mean that COVID-19 deaths may have been undercounted by a factor of 3.6.
All deaths, irrespective of cause and location, are meant to be registered with the civil registration system. Since various governments have set different standards to classify a death as being caused by COVID-19, many deaths are missing from the official count. While mathematical models suggest that the actual toll may be four-five times higher, experts believe that data on all-cause mortality will provide the best estimate on the actual toll of COVID-19.
Though experts caution against attributing every single ‘excess’ death to COVID-19, it is reasonable to suspect that during a pandemic, the majority of them were caused by the viral disease. Because the healthcare system was overwhelmed across the country during the second wave’s peak, it is possible that people with other illnesses were also not able to access medical services, resulting in deaths that could otherwise have been prevented.
The Hindu reported that instead of averages, if the state’s year-by-year growth rate of deaths is considered, in April and May 2021, Chhattisgarh should have registered 31,842 deaths. In truth, this number was 71,142. “In this approach, the undercount factor slightly comes down from 4.85 to 4.4,” the report says, adding that calculating the ‘excess deaths’ using the averages method is more appropriate because Chhattisgarh’s growth in recorded deaths over years has not been consistent.
While at first glance, Chhattisgarh’s undercount factor is not as alarming as that of other states – the actual death toll in Andhra Pradesh may be 34 times the official count – The Hindu says that the estimate is a conservative one.
For one, the state has a lower level of death registration when compared to the national average. The report says that even before the pandemic, just 81.5% of all deaths were registered in the state, which is lower than 26 of the 36 states and Union Territories.
Also, The Hindu‘s estimate is based on just 24-32% of the state’s registration units which published data on fatalities for April and May. The average deaths for previous years was based on the CRS annual reports, which collates information from all the registration units.
“Thus, the actual deaths that occurred in April-May 2021 may be three times higher than reported and so the undercount factor may also increase substantially from 4.8 to about 10.” the newspaper said.
Even among those deaths which are registered, just 76.4% are done within 21 days of death. In contrast, states like Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, more than 90% of deaths are registered within this period. The delay in deaths being registered could also mean that the actual death toll for April and May could be higher.
The Hindu spoke to Chhattisgarh health minister T.S. Singh Deo, who said the government is completely open to any data presented by anyone”, denying there was any suppression by the government to keep the official death toll.
However, he also claimed that deaths registered with the civil registration system cannot be low, since “there is a lot of awareness in the villages too”. The health minister also said he does not see the need for a door-to-door survey, which experts say may be the only way of finding out the true toll of COVID-19.
In total, Chhattisgarh has reported 13,439 deaths due to COVID-19 as of Thursday. Nearly 4 lakh Indians have died during the pandemic.