Why we need to count the Covid dead -Abhishek Anand, Justin Sandefur and Arvind Subramanian

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published Published on Jul 20, 2021   modified Modified on Jul 21, 2021

-The Indian Express

Abhishek Anand, Justin Sandefur, Arvind Subramanian write: Confronting the scale of the tragedy will help India draw lessons and etch them deep into the nation’s collective consciousness to foster a ‘never again’ resolve

Of another existential threat, Bob Dylan accusingly asked, “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?” This Covid pandemic in India has seen a curious but no less tragic inversion of that sentiment: Only a sense that too many died in the second wave has really galvanised efforts to find out the true number of deaths.

The official Covid death count as of end-June 2021 is 4,00,000. The reality is, of course, catastrophically worse. Unlike in other countries, authoritative excess death estimates based on official data have not been available because government recording of deaths, especially at the Centre, has been lagging. As a result, thus far, and with some exceptions, attempts to capture the sombre reality have been inadequate.

Recently, the heroic and tireless efforts of a number of journalists, newspapers (English but especially vernacular), and researchers have led to fuller and better cataloguing of mortality during the second wave. And we are now, for the first time, getting data-based estimates of excess deaths. These deaths cannot be strictly attributed to Covid per se, as many of the relevant data sources tell us nothing about the cause of death. Rather, what we observe are deaths that happened in the wake of the pandemic in excess of some baseline number of deaths in previous years, referred to as all-cause excess mortality.

In new research, we provide three different estimates of such excess deaths based on three different data sources, each requiring different assumptions and methodologies (see table). We do not favour any one estimate because each has merits and shortcomings discussed below. Comparing the results side by side, however, provides three key takeaways.

First, unsurprisingly, there is considerable uncertainty within and across estimates. The central estimates range from about 3.5 to nearly 5 million with substantial error margins around them. The share of deaths in the first versus second wave also varies across estimates. It is imperative, therefore, that research continues to estimate Covid-related deaths more precisely. It is equally imperative that the government aid this effort by making publicly available all the data on sero-surveys and deaths it has generated.

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The Indian Express, 20 July, 2021, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/india-covid-deaths-second-wave-7412619/

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