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June 18, 2020

How authentic is official death count?

Top Story

June 18, 2020

ISLAMABAD: If official statistics are to be believed, the number of deaths in first five months of this year have been lower than the corresponding period of the previous year, a calculation that raises question about the integrity of data in a country where there is no proper system to keep the death count.

At a time when coronavirus has affected many areas, the news of low death rate is greeted with skepticism and the officials have their own explanations but they are not plausible enough to answer relevant questions. The News spoke with officials in all provinces to inquire about the data, if there is any. In Sindh, Karachi did an exercise of data collection after a report by M. Waqar Bhatti in The News on April 15 revealed rising number of deaths of patients upon arrival at hospitals.

In Punjab, officials claim to have collected figures from all districts from January to May and they have drawn a comparison with the corresponding period of 2019. No such effort has been made in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa whereas Balochistan did collection to some extent. Regarding Karachi, the data first came to public view when Governor Sindh Imran Ismail tweeted it on May 7 apparently in an attempt to downplay the virus threat. That was from February to April.

This data had reported about deaths under different categories, say, those occurred in hospitals were reported separately from homicide killings, road accidents and due to coronavirus. Information collected from graveyards was also incorporated. In all cases, decrease in deaths was reported drawing a comparison between the deaths in February 2020 with deaths in February 2019 and so on. There was only one exception: deaths due to road accidents registered an increase from 13 in February 2019 to 24 in 2020. There was no lockdown then therefore deaths in road accidents are understandable.

The News spoke to different officials in Karachi asking them relevant questions for determining the veracity of data but couldn’t find single official who would claim to be in complete picture. The city administration referred to the Citizens Police Liaison Committee. A spokesperson of CPLC said they had only shared data related to deaths in road accidents and homicides. Who collected from the graveyard remains unexplored. A leading politician from Sindh government was caught by disbelief after going through data. “Many graveyards of Karachi are full to the capacity and further burial is banned nevertheless it is done with the connivance of grave diggers. Keeping record of those burials means for grave diggers preparing a charge sheet against them,” he said.

Although Edhi Foundation claims that number of deaths have increased, they don’t have data to back that either. When checked with Edhi Foundation, its spokesman said that they receive more calls than before from people wanting help in wash of dead bodies and burial. Asked about the data to determine the difference with the corresponding period of previous years, The News was told that data cleaning was in progress and would soon be shared. It has not been done after the passage of a week.

In Punjab, officials say they have collected details from all graveyards in each district to determine the number of dead buried there. In Lahore, for examples, there are 274 (defunct) union councils and 906 graveyards, according to official figures. The number of death from January to May 2020 has been shown lower than the corresponding period in previous year. In cases, difference is too high to believe. In May this year, 1748 deaths have been recorded by graveyards in the entire Lahore compared with 5015 in May last year. In contrast, there was not much difference in the figures of January 2020 (2557 deaths) and the January last year (2595 deaths). Same is in the case of February. The reasons described is that since there was no lockdown in those months, there would have been more road accidents, main cause of death.

Asked if there is any system of keeping record of deaths in Punjab, the answer was in negative. Then how did they gather not only this year’s statistics but of also corresponding period in the previous year? An official said the grave diggers are supposed to maintain register and that was the source of information. The News checked from different sources and came to know that there is no institutionalized system in place at graveyard level. People tend to report death at union council level only when inevitable, say, when it is required for property transfer etc. The News also checked from other districts and found out there is no cumulative figure available, regardless the authenticity. A commissioner, for example, shared the data of his division. It was a kind of sample representation at best. Details of dead from a couple of graveyards from each district were collected to determine a pattern; not more than that.

While KP has not carried out any such exercise, Balochistan has gathered this year’s information. Asked how that was arranged, the spokesman of Balochistan government said this was based on the daily situation report each commissioner get from districts under his/her administration.