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WHO’s right about covid numbers?

By Dilip D’Souza
REUTERS

It’s also a number that few people seriously contest. Our death rate has steadily declined over many years. In “normal" times, it is now at about 0.73% - meaning that for every 10,000 people in India, about 73 die every year. Do the arithmetic for a population of 1.38 billion (2020), and you’ll run into that 10 million figure.

So yes, it is a number that nobody really contests. So imagine if someone, let’s say in the government, pronounced for whatever reason that there are actually far fewer than 10 million deaths every year in India. When sceptics ask questions about this claim, let’s say the same government official points out that “the Union government has been transparent in its approach" to counting deaths. This might strike you as strange: transparency aside, that statement is hardly a refutation of the scepticism, hardly proof of the lesser count. Yet something along those lines has just happened. The World Health Organization recently announced that their models and studies have shown that India has seriously under-counted the deaths due to covid in this country. They estimate that the real count of deaths might be as much as eight times India’s official count, which is about half a million. In truth, this is not a new suggestion - other observers of covid in India have long suspected it.

In any case, and predictably, the government has reacted to the WHO with annoyance. In fact, the words I’ve quoted above come from an official statement responding to the WHO data. This government has, we hear, been “transparent in its approach" to managing covid data. What’s more, there already is a “robust system of recording all covid-19 related deaths." What’s still more, the “Union health ministry has also been repeatedly advising states and Union Territories through formal communications, multiple video conferences and through the deployment of Central teams for the recording of deaths in accordance with laid down guidelines."

Fine words all, certainly. But they don’t answer the basic critique: that the numbers raise questions. How do we understand this? Before even looking at the data, recall that India has the second-largest number of human beings in the world. Nearly 1.4 billion of the planet’s nearly 8 billion people live in India - or about one-sixth of humanity. So as a general rule, if we say a certain number of humans have a certain characteristic, that would imply that about one-sixth of that number are the Indians who have that characteristic. To put it another way, if we can say something about a certain fraction of humans, we should be able to say the same thing about the same fraction of Indians.

For example, imagine that someone estimated that 600 million humans are bald. (I don’t know, I just made up that number.) Simply because a sixth of humanity is Indian, it would be right to assume that a sixth of that number, or 100 million, are bald Indians. Or suppose we find out that 3 billion people around the world wear prescription glasses. (I made up that number too.) It’s plausible, then, that 500 million Indians wear them. Or let’s say it’s known that exactly half of all humans are women. That implies that women must make up half of all Indians. That is, given India’s 2020 population of 1.38 billion, there are 690 million Indian women.

But if a closer look at Indian data belies such assumptions and implications, we would need to search for reasons and find some explanations. For example, perhaps the gene for baldness is less prevalent among Indians than it is among Australians, Rwandans and the rest. (I don’t know, I just made that up.) Then there would certainly be less than 100 million bald Indians. Or suppose Indians, by cultural habit perhaps, choose to start wearing corrective lenses at lower eye power levels than others. (Made that up too.) Then India would likely have more than our expected share of eyewear-wearers.

And what if we found that there are less than 690 million Indian women - that women account for less than half our population? (I didn’t make that up. It’s true. In 2020, about 48% of our population was female, or about 660 million.) That needs explanation - perhaps in terms of the status of Indian women, their health, or the educational obstacles Indian girls face. Some or all of those factors must explain the unusual sex ratio we have in India. In other words, unusual numbers for India suggest something unusual about India. That by itself deserves investigation and explanation. It would serve nobody, and no purpose, if Indian officialdom reacted to sex ratio figures by asserting that the Union government advises states to record all births in “accordance with laid down guidelines." 

Take a look at some covid numbers now. To date, the covid pandemic has killed about 6 million people across the world. On the face of it, this would suggest that about one-sixth of that toll, or 1 million, were Indians. So have we seen a million covid deaths in India?

Well, India has so far attributed to covid just over half a million deaths. That number - that discrepancy, really - should jump out at anyone. Why has covid killed so many fewer Indians than expected? The question practically cries out for an explanation.

So what might explain it? Is there something in the Indian genetic code that makes us more able than others to survive the virus? Possible. After all, some human characteristics are less prevalent in India than in other parts of the globe -- blond hair and blue eyes, for example. But at least so far, there’s simply no evidence of an anti-covid gene in Indians. In fact, we are about as prone to other viruses - the ones that cause measles, flu, chickenpox and more - as the rest of the world. Why should coronavirus be different?

Is there something in India’s response to the pandemic, then? Something remarkably different from every other country’s response that ensured we’d have far fewer than our share of deaths? Again, possible. But again, there’s no evidence to suggest this. Vaccinations didn’t get started until a year after the first cases - much like every other country, no doubt. We had a lockdown in March 2020 that triggered a massive refugee crisis. We had “superspreader" events like the Kumbh Mela and election rallies. Our experience with the second wave a year ago showed the hard reality of our health care system; enough said.

In short, nothing supports the notion that India treated the pandemic crisis uniquely well. In fact, there are ways in which we responded pretty dismally. So let’s be clear, or transparent, about the new WHO data. There’s every reason to examine it, ask questions about the WHO methodology, be sceptical. To do any less would be silly. But that’s exactly why we should also ask questions and be sceptical of India’s announced count of Covid deaths.

To do any less would be just as silly. I definitely did not make that up.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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Dive Deeper:
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