What Govt Data Tells Us About Covid-19 Deaths

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On Tuesday, India released data on births and deaths registered in 2020. The annual release matters more this time as official data had so far failed to reflect the impact of covid-19 on Indian households. Mint explores why the data is out ahead of schedule:

Why does the CRS data matter?

The Civil Registration System (CRS) collates data on all births and  deaths registered with local authorities across India. It releases its report around 18 months after a year ends. The 2020 report was released on Tuesday, at least a month before schedule. Such data can be of significance during a pandemic as possible covid-19 deaths may not have been categorized as such in official records. The CRS can help us reach an estimate by using the “excess deaths” approach, which is the difference between the total number of deaths registered in a pandemic year and the number of deaths that normally take place in a year.

What does the 2020 data show?

The CRS report for 2020 has recorded deaths of 8.12 million Indians, 6.2% more than 2019. Normally, an unusual increase in deaths would be linked to the pandemic. However, in India, not all deaths are registered. Thus, a rise could simply be because of more families getting deaths registered. In 2019, an estimated 92% of all deaths were registered, a sharp improvement from 84.6% in 2018. If we knew registration levels for 2020, we could use that number to estimate excess deaths. However, the Centre has not released registration levels yet. The CRS for 2021, which saw more covid deaths, may not be out until next year.

Covid's toll

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Covid’s toll

Why was the data released ahead of schedule?

India and the World Health Organization (WHO) are locked in a tussle over the latter’s excess death estimates that would give a sense of pandemic-linked fatalities globally in 2020-21. India has reportedly stalled WHO’s efforts to release the data, claiming flawed methodology. WHO is set to release its estimates today, a possible reason that India released CRS data early.

Why is India contesting the WHO approach?

One key objection by India is that WHO has classified it as a Tier 2 country and hence used a different modelling process to estimate excess deaths from that used for Tier 1 countries. WHO says all countries that made available their full all-cause mortality data for the pandemic period were classified as Tier 1. India is in Tier 2 because it didn’t share official data with WHO. Hence, alternative data and modelling methods had to be adopted, adjusting for factors such as income levels, covid-19 reporting rates, and test positivity rates.

How should excess death  numbers  be  read?

Governments will naturally fail to capture the true toll of a pandemic like covid-19. Not all patients are tested and defining a “covid death” is complicated. This leaves the “excess deaths” approach the best-placed method to estimate the toll. However, it should not be seen as the actual number of covid-19 deaths. It may also include people who lost their lives because of the indirect impact of the pandemic, such as patients of other diseases who could not get timely health-care because of lockdowns. This applies to WHO estimates too.

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