West Bengal recorded 1,20,227 excess deaths from April 2020 to May this year, The Hindu reported on Sunday. This number is about 11.1 times the official Covid-19 toll of 10,787 for the same period.
Excess deaths is the divergence between all-cause deaths reported this year and in normal years. While all excess deaths are not likely to be due to Covid-19, a majority of them are expected to be linked to the coronavirus disease during the pandemic. The diversion of healthcare resources for people with Covid-19 meant that many patients with other ailments may have failed to access treatment.
The Hindu accessed data from the Civil Registration System, a countrywide registry of all births and deaths maintained by the Office of the Registrar General of India. The system is meant to record deaths from all causes and every location, whether they were medically certified or not.
Excess deaths were calculated on monthly fatalities registered online on the Civil Registration System between January 2018 and May 2021. The numbers for Kolkata were taken from the Municipal Corporation’s records. The Hindu excluded Darjeeling, Kalimpong, North 24 Parganas, Jhargram and Paschim Medinipur districts from its analysis because of incomplete data.
As many as 64,520 excess deaths were recorded from April 2020 to December 2020 in the 18 districts that The Hindu analysed. This is 9.4 times the official Covid toll of 6,833. Between January and May 2021, the coronavirus toll recorded was 3,954. The excess deaths during this period were 55,207, almost 14 times the official toll.
Rural districts of West Bengal recorded particularly high excess death figures. In Purba Bardhaman district, the number of excess deaths – 7,556 – was 60.4 times the official Covid toll of 125, according to The Hindu. In Puruliya, the estimated undercount factor was 58.7, it was 52.7 in Cooch Behar, 32.7 in Malda, 31.9 in Bankura and 30.4 in Murshidabad.
In the capital Kolkata, there were 12,708 excess deaths, which was 2.9 times the official Covid toll of 4,456, the newspaper reported.
As on May 31, the Covid-19 toll for all 23 districts of West Bengal stood at 15,536. This toll has now increased to 18,073, according to a bulletin issued by the government on July 25.
Punyabrata Gun, a public health expert, told The Hindu that many people with Covid symptoms could not get tested because of inadequate facilities. “Therefore, a certain section of deaths was not included as Covid deaths,” he said. “Also, patients dying from post Covid complications were not counted in Covid deaths.”
Sajal Biswas, general secretary of Service Doctors’ Forum in West Bengal, alleged that there was a suppression of actual figures, especially in North and South 24 Parganas and Darjeeling. “If these deaths were counted, the number of deaths will be much higher,” Biswas told the newspaper.
Underreporting of deaths in India
India’s official Covid-19 toll is widely considered to be an underestimate of the actual number of deaths that occurred in the country. To estimate the scale of this, researchers have used data from the Civil Registration System to calculate and understand the difference between deaths registered during the pandemic years – 2020 and 2021 – and other years.
Latest data from the National Health Mission’s Health Management Information System shows that nearly 3 lakh more deaths occurred in May, compared to the same month in 2019. This figure is more than 2.5 times India’s official Covid-19 death count for the same period.
More than 2.5 lakh of the over 4,92,000 adult deaths recorded in May across the country were from “causes not known”. The biggest increases over a similar period in pre-pandemic times were in deaths from “fever” and “respiratory diseases”, both symptoms of coronavirus.
In the past few months, similar data on excess deaths has emerged for states such as Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Assam, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
A report published by India’s former Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian and two other researchers last week had estimated that India’ Covid-19 toll was between 34 lakh to 47 lakh. The estimated count is much higher than the official toll of 4.20 lakh.
But, the Centre claimed that media reports on undercounting of deaths were totally fallacious. It alleged that some cases could go undetected but missing out on the deaths is unlikely.