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India's COVID Death Toll Is 'Totally Wrong'

Experts, family believe nation has undercounted cases, deaths by hundreds of thousands
By Jenn Gidman,  Newser Staff
Posted Jun 28, 2021 8:21 AM CDT

(Newser) – On Monday, India reported its latest COVID numbers, with new cases over the past 24 hours totaling 46,148, and deaths rising during that same period by 979, reports Reuters. That puts the country's death toll at almost 397,000—but family members and experts say that's a severe undercount, with the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington claiming the actual death toll is closer to 1.1 million, or almost three times more, per the Wall Street Journal. The Economist notes that the undercount could be even worse than that, with some epidemiologists and news groups suggesting the true fatality figure could be five to seven times greater than the official tally. In the state of Telangana, for instance, a study indicates that as many as six times as many people have died of the virus than what's been reported. The suspected undercounting tracks with recent research indicating the same for COVID deaths globally.

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Christopher Murray, head of the IHME, tells the Journal his group also believes only 3% to 5% of India's COVID cases have been found, as there's insufficient testing. Health experts say a surge in India in April and May left hospitals overwhelmed, meaning many people simply died at home without ever getting tested for COVID. "The official numbers, at least for our village and a few others close to us, are totally wrong," says one man whose wife died at home and wasn't included in the COVID death toll, which requires a positive test or other confirmation of infection from a health care facility. This problem has been exacerbated in the poorer, more rural areas, where testing access and health care in general is shoddy. This all worries Murray, for yet another reason. Knowing the real count for cases and deaths is "a very important part of understanding how big a threat new variants are," he notes. (Read more India stories.)

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