New Delhi/London: India’s coronavirus death toll is up to 10 times higher than the nearly 415,000 fatalities reported by authorities, likely making it the country’s worst humanitarian disaster since independence, a US research group said on Tuesday.
The Centre for Global Development study’s estimate is the highest yet for the carnage in the South Asian nation of 1.3 billion people, which is emerging from a devastating surge partly fuelled by the Delta variant in April and May.
The study -- which analysed data from the start of the pandemic to June this year -- suggested that between 3.4 million and 4.7 million people had died from the virus. "True deaths are likely to be in the several millions, not hundreds of thousands, making this arguably India’s worst human tragedy since partition and independence," the researchers said.
After the sub-continent’s partition in 1947 into mainly Hindu India and Muslim-majority Pakistan, sectarian bloodshed killed hundreds of thousands of people. Some estimates say up to two million died.
India’s official death toll of just over 414,000 is the world’s third-highest after the United States’ 609,000 fatalities and Brazil’s 542,000. Experts have been casting doubt on India’s toll for months, blaming the already overstretched health service.
Several Indian states have revised their virus tolls in recent weeks, adding thousands of "backlog" deaths. The Centre for Global Development report was based on estimating "excess mortality", the number of extra people who died compared with pre-crisis figures.
The authors -- who included Arvind Subramanian, a former chief government economic adviser -- did this partly by analysing death registrations in some states as well as a recurring national economic study.
They also compared surveys of the spread of Covid-19 in India with international death rates. The researchers, which also included a Harvard University expert, acknowledged that estimating mortality with statistical confidence was difficult.
"(But) all estimates suggest that the death toll from the pandemic is likely to be an order of magnitude greater than the official count," they said. Christophe Guilmoto, a specialist in Indian demography at France’s Research Institute for Development, this month estimated that the death toll was nearer 2.2 million by late May.
India’s death rate per million was nearly half the world average and Guilmoto said "such a low figure contradicts the apparent severity of a crisis that has struck most Indian families across the country".
Guilmoto’s team concluded that only one coronavirus death in seven was recorded. A model by the US-based Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that the Covid toll could be more than 1.25 million.
India’s health ministry last month slammed The Economist magazine for publishing a story that said excess deaths were between five and seven times higher than the official toll, calling it "speculative" and "misinformed".
A World Health Organisation report in May said up to three times more people had died around the globe during the pandemic -- from coronavirus or other causes -- than indicated by official statistics.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sought to avoid a second lockdown last autumn, arguing that most of those dying were over 80, according to his former aide-turned bitter foe Dominic Cummings.
In a BBC interview airing on Tuesday, the mastermind of Johnson’s anti-EU Brexit campaign said his former boss "put his own political interests ahead of people’s lives". In the latest of a series of attacks on the government following his resignation as chief Downing Street advisor in November, Cummings shared WhatsApp messages apparently from Johnson.
In one message shown by Cummings to the BBC, the prime minister allegedly wrote in October that most people were dying from the virus at an age above the average life expectancy.
"The median age is 82-81 for men and 85 for women. That is above life expectancy. So get Covid and Live longer," Johnson was said to have written in the text message. The prime minister also apparently downplayed the pandemic’s impact on the National Health Service (NHS), despite himself receiving intensive care treatment for Covid last spring.
"I no longer buy all this nhs overwhelmed stuff. Folks I think we may need to recalibrate," the WhatsApp message from October 15 says, two weeks before Johnson did in fact announce a second lockdown.
Cummings summarised Johnson’s attitude at the time as: "This is terrible but the people dying are essentially all over 80 and we can’t kill the economy just because of people dying over 80."
Business minister Paul Scully defended the prime minister against the allegation that he was ready to sacrifice the over-80s to save the economy. "I don’t think that’s right," Scully told BBC radio, stressing he did not know whether the messages were genuine.
"The prime minister had some really difficult decisions to make," he added. "We want to protect people, we want to keep people safe... but that has to be balanced with people’s livelihoods."
Johnson has faced serious criticism for vacillating at various stages of the health crisis, with the UK’s death toll soaring to the worst in Europe before a successful vaccine rollout. On Monday he controversially opted to go ahead with the relaxation of almost all virus restrictions in England, despite cases growing steeply in recent weeks.
Cummings also claimed that at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, he had to persuade Johnson not to continue meeting Queen Elizabeth II in person every week. He claimed the prime minister said on March 18: "Sod this. I’m going to go and see her."
Johnson changed his mind after Cummings said he told him that some Downing Street staff were already infected, and that risking the life of the monarch, then aged 94, was "completely insane". Downing Street denied this took place, while Buckingham Palace declined to comment, according to the BBC.
The prime minister repeatedly condemned the first lockdown from March 2020 as a "disaster", Cummings said.
The UK government lifted many virus restrictions over the summer of 2020 including reopening non-essential shops, and encouraged people to "eat out to help out" at restaurants. But as cases and hospitalisations soared after the summer, a new lockdown in England entered force on October 31 -- more than a month after government scientists began pressing for one.
In a latest development, Bhutan rolled out second doses of its vaccine programme on Tuesday following a lightning-fast first phase that saw most of its eligible adult population inoculated in two weeks. The tiny Himalayan kingdom, which has a population of 770,000, was forced to wait more than three months to revive its mass vaccination drive after neighbouring India halted exports to meet local demand during a massive surge in infections.
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