Tracking the spread and impact of the pandemic has proven to be a tricky task around the world
Bihar added close to 4,000 cases to its COVID-19 death toll on Wednesday and that saw India reporting the highest fatality numbers for any country during the entire duration of the pandemic so far. But the deaths reported by Bihar did not all occur during the previous 24 hours. So, why did the state suddenly see its tally of fatalities jump from a total of about 5,500 on June 8 to close to 9,500 on 9 June. All this only gives more credence to question marks around the overall COVID-19 death toll in India, with many experts saying it is probably a massive undercount.
Court nudge for bringing order to numbers
Health officials in Bihar undertook a review of COVID-19 death numbers in the state following orders from the Patna High Court in the wake of speculation that there was a mismatch between actual and reported deaths in the state. The high court called for an audit of the death count in the April-May period, when the massive second wave hit the country. Visuals of bodies floating down the Ganga in Bihar’s Buxar district pointed to suspected Covid deaths that had gone unreported.
Till 28 February this year, Bihar had reported a total of 1,541 COVID-19 deaths. But since the beginning of March, which is when the second wave is supposed to have taken hold in India, the state has reported close to 8,000 more deaths, including the addition of 3,971 fatalities on June 9 per the revised tally.
According to NDTV, health officials in Bihar said that the jump of about 72 percent in the death toll includes numbers from all the 38 districts of the state.
When did these extra deaths occur?
That is difficult to say as Bihar’s health officials did not clarify the period over which these additional deaths were noted. However, it can safely be assumed that all the close to 4,000 extra deaths added on Wednesday did not occur in the previous 24 hours. Amid the chaos of the pandemic, periodic review of death and case counts are common.
According to The Indian Express, the extra deaths could even include numbers from last year and not just the fatalities during the second wave as cases surged and reports said that hundreds of people were turned away from hospitals that struggled with a huge shortage of beds and medical oxygen.
Tracking the spread and impact of the pandemic has proven to be a tricky task around the world. From countries like the UK to states like Maharashtra, all have had to undertake periodic revisions of their COVID-19 data. Further, with serosurveys suggesting that in places close to half the population has antibodies, there is the view that cases, too, have been hugely underreported across the country and around the world.
What do Bihar’s extra deaths do to India’s COVID-19 toll?
Data till 9 June shows that India with 3.55 lakh deaths is second in terms of the COVID-19 toll only to the US, which has so far recorded close to 6 lakh deaths. The deaths added by Bihar though saw the country’s single-day death toll zoom to 6,139, the highest reportedly for any country in the world. Before this, it was the US that had the highest single-day tally of COVID-19 deaths.
Interestingly, The Guardian reports that the US’ highest single-day toll, too, was a result of an audit as a backlog of 1,500 deaths from the US state of Indiana took the death toll for 4 February, 2021 to 5,077.
Until 9 June, India’s highest single-day toll, as per the seven-day rolling average, was 4,529 on 18 May, during the peak of the second wave. Deaths had actually been on a steady decline since then but, The Times Of India reports that over 16,000 deaths from previous months have by now been added by various states to the national toll since the beginning of May.
Is there an undercount of cases and deaths in India?
Citing extrapolation of data by experts and pointing to sero surveys that showed many more people may have had the disease than captured in daily data, the article said that up to 3-times as many people may have died in India than the official count of over 3 lakh deaths.
The Centre had strongly come out against the report with NITI Aayog member VK Paul saying that the NYT report was “not backed by any evidence”. The NYT piece said that the worst-case scenario estimate for deaths in the country was 42 lakh as official figures “grossly understate the true scale of the pandemic in the country”.