NEW DELHI: New Delhi’s COVID-19 czar on Friday dismissed a World Health Organization estimate that 4.7 million Indians – 10 times more than officially reported – have lost their lives to of coronavirus disease.
The pandemic devastated India, especially during the second viral wave between March and May 2021, when its hospitals ran out of staff, beds and oxygen. People with empty oxygen cylinders were seen queuing outside filling facilities, hoping to save loved ones in intensive care at the hospital.
Many were forced to turn to makeshift facilities for mass burials and cremations as funeral services could not cope with the unprecedented number of bodies.
The WHO said Thursday that by the end of 2021, there were 14.9 million additional deaths worldwide associated with COVID-19.
Excess mortality figures reflect people who died from COVID-19 as well as those who died as a result of the outbreak indirectly, including people who were unable to access health care for other conditions when hospitals were been overwhelmed in huge waves of infection.
The WHO has estimated that 4.7 million people have died in India from the pandemic, mostly during the second wave. Indian authorities, however, estimated the death toll for the period January 2020 to December 2021 to be much lower – around 480,000.
Dr NK Arora, head of the Indian government’s COVID task force, told local media that the WHO’s findings were “absurd”, adding: “It is very unfortunate that (the) WHO has done something wrong. this genre.
“These are untenable numbers.”
But for Indian citizens like Sunil Kumar Sinha, who lost his wife and 14 other family members in the second wave in Patna, in the eastern state of Bihar, the recognition by the UN body that his relatives were victims of the coronavirus brought some relief.
“You have to recognize death. Death has taken place, it is a fact,” he told Arab News, adding that he was happy that the WHO report had been published.
“It was the worst time to testify. People died in large numbers due to lack of oxygen, lack of hospital beds. You can’t deny the WHO report. It’s the truth In 17 days, I lost 15 members of my family.
Sinha was not surprised by the government’s refusal to accept the WHO data.
“The government does not want to accept that there was an oxygen shortage,” he said. “They don’t want to accept failure.”
Nitesh Mehta, a 16-year-old from Araria district in Bihar, lost both parents to the virus last year, but only his mother was counted as a COVID-19 victim.
For him, no report, local or international, could be of any consolation.
“No report can bring relief to the person who has lost both parents,” he said.
When the second wave of coronavirus swept the country, Indian civil society was already on alert over under-reporting of victims. In August 2021, a group of journalists from the Collectif des reporters founded an online memorial project, the Wall of Sorrow, to make every coronavirus death count and document the hidden toll of the pandemic.
The Wall of Mourning is a public repository of the names of coronavirus victims, their age, gender, occupation, place and date of death.
It was backed by the independent news agency 101Reporters and the Delhi-based National Foundation for India, an independent organization for public welfare and social transformation.
“We have people’s names on the wall, so people don’t just become a number in this pandemic, so their memory stays with us,” one of the project coordinators, Tapasya Tofuss, told Arab News. .
She said analysis of the group’s data supported the WHO’s findings. The Reporters’ Collective studied figures from four Indian states – Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Rajasthan – where it found excess deaths were five to 27 times higher than officially reported.
“(The) WHO report is in line with the analysis of excess deaths that was done previously, so it doesn’t really look as inflated as the government would say,” Tofuss added.
According to her, one of the reasons for the under-reporting could be the issue of compensation, as the Supreme Court had ordered the federal government to pay 50,000 rupees ($650) to each family that lost a member to the COVID-19.
“The government could shirk the responsibility, the accountability that comes with such huge numbers,” she said.
“With the Supreme Court’s order to compensate every victim of COVID-19, there is the financial burden of compensating so many people, because the excess death toll we are seeing is many times higher than officially recorded. “