India stalls WHO efforts to make global Covid-19 death toll public


India has been reluctant to share Covid-19 mortality data with the World Health Organisation (WHO), stalling efforts by the world body to calculate the global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic.

An effort by the WHO to calculate the global death toll has found that more people died than previously believed – a total of about 15 million by the end of 2021, more than double the official total of 6 million reported by countries individually.

But the release of the estimate – the result of more than a year of research and analysis by experts around the world and the most comprehensive look at the lethality of the pandemic to date – has been delayed for months because of objections from India.

More than one-third of the additional 9 million deaths are estimated to have occurred in India, where the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has stood by its own count of about 520,000.

The WHO will show the country’s toll is at least 4 million, according to people familiar with the numbers who were not authorised to disclose them, which would give India the highest tally in the world,

The WHO calculation combined national data on reported deaths with new information from localities and household surveys, and with statistical models that aim to account for deaths that were missed.

Most of the difference in the new global estimate represents previously uncounted deaths, the bulk of which were directly from Covid-19; the new number also includes indirect deaths, like those of people unable to access care for other ailments because of the pandemic.

The delay in releasing the figures is significant because the global data is essential for understanding how the pandemic has played out and what steps could mitigate a similar crisis.

It has created turmoil in the normally staid world of health statistics – a feud cloaked in anodyne language is playing out at the United Nations Statistical Commission, the world body that gathers health data, spurred by India’s refusal to cooperate.

“It’s important for global accounting and the moral obligation to those who have died, but also important very practically. If there are subsequent waves, then really understanding the death total is key to knowing if vaccination campaigns are working,” said Dr. Prabhat Jha, director of the Centre for Global Health Research in Toronto and a member of the expert working group supporting the WHO’s excess death calculation. “And it’s important for accountability.”

To try to take the true measure of the pandemic’s effect, the WHO assembled a collection of specialists including demographers, public health experts, statisticians and data scientists. The Technical Advisory Group, as it is known, has been collaborating across countries to try to piece together the most complete accounting of the pandemic dead.

The Times spoke with more than 10 people familiar with the data. The WHO had planned to make the numbers public in January, but the release has continually been pushed back.

Recently, a few members of the group warned the WHO that if the organisation did not release the figures, the experts would do so themselves, three people familiar with the matter said.

A WHO spokesperson, Amna Smailbegovic, told The Times, “We aim to publish in April.” Dr. Samira Asma, the WHO’s assistant director-general for data, analytics and delivery for impact, who is helping to lead the calculation, said that the release of the data has been “slightly delayed” but said that it was “because we wanted to make sure everyone is consulted”.

“India feels that the process was neither collaborative nor adequately representative,” the government said in a statement to the UN Statistical Commission in February. It also argued that the process did not “hold scientific rigour and rational scrutiny as expected from an organisation of the stature of the World Health Organisation.” The Ministry of Health in New Delhi did not respond to requests for comment.

India is not alone in undercounting pandemic deaths: The new WHO numbers also reflect undercounting in other populous countries such as Indonesia and Egypt.

Asma noted that many countries have struggled to accurately calculate the pandemic’s effect. Even in the most advanced countries, she said, “I think when you look under the hood, it is challenging.” At the start of the pandemic, there were significant disparities in how quickly US states were reporting deaths, she said, and some were still collecting the data via fax.

India brought a large team to review the WHO data analysis, she said, and the agency was glad to have the team do it, because it wanted the model to be as transparent as possible.

India’s work on vaccination has won praise from experts globally, but its public health response to Covid-19 has been criticised for overconfidence.

Modi boasted in January 2021 that India had “saved humanity from a big disaster”. A couple of months later, his health minister declared that the country was “in the endgame of Covid-19”. Complacency set in, leading to missteps and attempts by officials to silence critical voices within elite institutions.

Then, in April 2021, a devastating second wave hit. Hospitals had to turn patients away, and oxygen ran out. But many deaths went uncounted.

Science in India has been increasingly politicised over the course of the pandemic. In February, India’s junior health minister criticised a study published in the journal Science that estimated the country’s Covid-19 death toll to be seven to eight times the official number.

In March, the government questioned the methodology of a study published in The Lancet that estimated India’s deaths at 4 million. (Source: The Straits Times)