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Political row erupts over India’s Covid-19 toll

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A political row erupted over the number of Covid-19 fatalities in the country as Congress leader Rahul Gandhi on Sunday said that four million Indians died during the pandemic due to Centre’s “negligence”, citing a US newspaper report which said New Delhi is trying to stall a WHO analysis of “excess mortality” that the Indian government alleged employed flawed mathematical modelling.

Gandhi made allegations in a tweet on Sunday along with a screenshot New York Times report dated April 16 that said the World Health Organization’s (WHO) efforts to make global Covid death toll public has been “delayed for months because of objections from India”.

A day earlier, the Union health ministry had responded to the article and said India has been in “regular and in-depth technical exchange with WHO on the issue”. “India’s basic objection has not been with the result (whatever they might have been) but rather the methodology adopted for the same,” the Union health ministry had said in a statement.

On Sunday, Gandhi targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Twitter. “Modi ji neither speaks the truth, nor lets others speak. He still lies that no one died due to oxygen shortage!” the former Congress president alleged in a tweet in Hindi.

“I had said earlier as well – due to the negligence of the government during Covid, not five lakh, but 40 lakh Indians died,” Gandhi said, adding: “Fulfil your responsibility, Modi ji – give compensation of 4 lakh to every (Covid) victim’s family.”

According to Union health ministry data, a total of 521,751 people had lost their lives to Covid-19 across India till Sunday morning.

HT reached out to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders for a comment on the allegations but did not get one immediately.

The New York Times report in question had said that an effort by WHO to calculate the real global death toll from the pandemic “has been delayed for months because of objections from India, which disputes the calculation of how many of its citizens died and has tried to keep it from becoming public”.

“The WHO will show the country’s toll is at least four million,” according to the report.

It added that WHO is working on an analysis that seeks to measure the true death toll from the now two-year-long global pandemic by setting up a “Technical advisory group on Covid-19 mortality assessment”.

“Excess death” is a term that refers to the total number of deaths occurring due to all causes during a crisis that is above and beyond what would have been expected under regular conditions. To be sure, not all such deaths may be due to Covid-19, but during a pandemic an abrupt rise in fatalities is likely to be either directly or indirectly caused by the outbreak.

Responding to the NYTimes report titled ‘India is stalling WHO’s efforts to make global Covid death toll public’, the government on Saturday questioned WHO’s methodology to estimate Covid-19 deaths in the country, saying using a mathematical modelling process for Tier-II countries (including India) cannot be applied to estimate the death figures for such a vast nation of geographical size and population.

“The concern specifically includes on how the statistical model projects estimate for a country of geographical size and population of India and also fits in with other countries which have smaller population,” it added.

The government added that it was yet to receive a satisfactory response from WHO despite raising concerns over the methodology through a series of formal communications, including six letters between November 17, 2021 and March 2 this year.

Furthermore, the health ministry raised concerns over WHO’s use of covariates like income group, age-sex distribution and containment measures, along with the choice of not using test positivity rate in the analysis.

“While India has expressed above and such similar concerns with WHO but a satisfactory response is yet to be received from WHO… India believes that in-depth clarity on methodology and clear proof of its validity are crucial for policy makers to feel confident about any use of such data,” the statement added.

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