Study says India's COVID death toll is at least 3 million

FILE PHOTO: Family members of Vijay Raju, who died due to the coronavirus disease, mourn before his cremation at a crematorium ground in Giddenahalli village on the outskirts of Bengaluru, India, May 13, 2021. REUTERS/Samuel Rajkumar/File Photo/File Photo
The number of people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic in India is likely to exceed 3 million — nearly 10 times the official COVID-19 death toll — making it one of the worst human tragedies in the country’s history, according to a new study.

In an examination of the true toll of the pandemic in the sprawling country of 1.4 billion, the Center for Global Development, a Washington research institute, attempted to quantify excess deaths from all causes during the pandemic based on state data, international estimates, serological studies and household surveys.

“True deaths are likely to be in the several millions, not hundreds of thousands, making this arguably India’s worst human tragedy,” said its authors, one of whom is a former chief economic adviser to the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The official government numbers have been called into question repeatedly. Even as funeral pyres lit up the night sky and bodies washed up along the Ganges River, with death all around, the Indian government was widely underreporting the scale of the devastation.

A chorus of experts have said the country’s official estimates are a gross understatement.

The study released Tuesday estimated that between 3.4 and 4.7 million more people than would normally be expected died between January 2020 and June 2021, and includes an estimate suggesting that deaths from COVID-19 may have reached 4 million.

“Estimating COVID deaths with statistical confidence may prove elusive,” the authors wrote. “But all estimates suggest that the death toll from the pandemic is likely to be an order of magnitude greater than the official count of 400,000; they also suggest that the first wave was more lethal than is believed.”

The authors said the undercount of death after the first wave of infections last year may have resulted, in part, from the fact that it was “spread out in time,” as opposed to the sharp curve of the second wave when hundreds of thousands of people died amid shortages of oxygen, beds and vaccines.

At the height of the second wave, interviews by New York Times reporters at cremation grounds in India exposed an extensive pattern of deaths far exceeding the official figures.

Nervous politicians and hospital administrators may also have undercounted or overlooked large numbers of dead, analysts said. And grieving families may be hiding COVID connections as well, out of shame, adding to the confusion.

© 2021 New York Times News Service