In Depth

Indian government accused of hiding true death toll of Covid ‘storm’

Witnesses claim many coronavirus fatalities are not being recorded as double mutation triggers healthcare crisis

The Indian government is massively underreporting the scale of the country’s Covid crisis, experts are claiming. 

India recorded 349,691 new cases yesterday - setting a new global record for the fifth consecutive day - and 2,767 coronavirus deaths. But medical workers say those totals, “however staggering”, represent just “a fraction of the real reach of the virus’s spread, which has thrown the country into emergency mode”, The New York Times (NYT) reports.

The steep surge has been linked to a new “double mutant” Covid strain that has triggered a nationwide panic, “with hospitals unbearably full, oxygen supplies running low and desperate people dying in line waiting to see doctors”, the paper adds.

‘Covid apocalypse’

In a radio address yesterday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged all citizens to get vaccinated and exercise caution. “Our spirits were high after successfully dealing with the first wave,” he said. “But this storm has shaken the nation.”

The speech marked a significant shift in tone for Modi, who only the day before “could not hide his delight” as he greeted thousands of supporters at an an election rally in West Bengal, The Times reports. “I’ve never seen such huge crowds,” the PM said.

Modi had been riding high on a wave of praise after recorded new Covid cases in India dropped to an average of just 11,000 a day in February. Health Minister Harsh Vardhan declared last month that the country was “in the endgame” of the pandemic and described Modi as an “example to the world”.

Fuelled by “a cocktail of hubris, complacency and nationalist politics”, Modi “was determined to open up an economy that had taken a battering” during the pandemic, the newspaper continues. But the result has been a “Covid apocalypse” that is being “exacerbated by a slow domestic vaccine rollout, an ill-equipped health system, lax protection, pandemic fatigue and promotion of the economy over containment”, as well as the new double mutant variant of the virus.

The rapid collapse of India’s healthcare system “came as no surprise” to Abdul Fathahudeen, a critical care expert based in Kerela, who told The Times that he had warned “in February that Covid had not gone anywhere and a tsunami would hit us if urgent actions were not taken”.

“A false sense of normalcy crept in and everybody, including people and officials, did not take measures to stop the second wave,” he said. “Sadly, a tsunami has indeed hit us now.”

The “unprecedented surge” in deaths has seen families of victims “forced to store their dead at home as crematoriums are overwhelmed and hospitals struggle to function”, The Telegraph reports. 

The paper’s India correspondent, Joe Wallen, tweets that he is being inundated with calls from acquaintances and people previously interviewed about the pandemic who are now “asking for help in hospital admission, finding an ICU bed, in getting tested, or securing [and] delivering medicines”.

As the virus continues to spread, the government in New Delhi has also requested international assistance in tackling the health crisis.

Britain yesterday pledged to send vital medical equipment including 495 oxygen concentrators, 120 non-invasive ventilators and 20 manual ventilators. And the US may provide oxygen supplies, Covid tests, drug treatments and personal protective equipment (PPE), as part of aid measures being considered by the Joe Biden administration.

Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Sunday that “it’s a terrible situation that’s going on in India and other lower middle-income countries, and there is more we can do”.

Missing dead

Although India is already reporting almost half of the world’s new Covid cases, the true scale of the health disaster may be even greater, according to interviews conducted by the NYT at “cremation grounds across the country”.

The claims have been backed up by analysts, who told the paper that “nervous politicians and hospital administrators may be undercounting or overlooking” deaths, with crematoriums where “the fires never stop” hinting at “an extensive pattern of deaths far exceeding the official figures”.

“It’s a complete massacre of data,” said Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan. “From all the modelling we’ve done, we believe the true number of deaths is two to five times what is being reported.”

“Deaths in India have always been counted poorly,” according to The Times of India, which says the “vast majority of deaths” in rural areas went uncounted “even before the pandemic”. And the speed with which the virus has spread has made mortality data even more “difficult to accurately assess”.

The paper cites the example of Lucknow, the capital city of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh. The official Covid death toll for Lucknow between 11 and 16 April was 145. But “just two of the city’s main crematoriums reported more than 430 or three times as many cremations under Covid-19 protocol in that period”.

Other newspapers across India and further afield are reporting similar discrepancies. A recent frontpage of The Hindu claimed that “Covid-19 deaths in Gujarat far exceed government figures”.

And a recent survey by the NYT of the main Covid cremation and burial grounds in the city of Bhopal, in central India, revealed a total of more than 1,000 Covid deaths over 13 days in mid-April when only 41 were recorded officially.

Dr. G.C. Gautam, a cardiologist based in Bhopal, told the paper that the authorities were suppressing the true number of fatalities because “they don’t want to create panic”.

“Many deaths are not getting recorded and they are increasing every day,” he warned.

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