Timely data would help policymakers better gauge the impact of the pandemic that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in its deadly second wave, severely affecting families, especially their economic condition, several experts said. This would also help end speculation about the actual toll, the experts said.

So far, efforts to harness mortality data have been plagued with opacity and delays by municipal bodies, according to the experts. Only three of India’s 53 million-plus cities have issued data on all deaths registered in 2020.

Getting it right

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Getting it right

While local bodies already possess such data, it is mostly available only through India’s Civil Registration System (CRS), whose report is released with a lag of two years. These numbers, if issued early by urban bodies, could help policymakers and researchers estimate how many more people died in 2020 and 2021 than the usual annual number. Though this may not conclusively tell how many died of covid, it could still help drive timely policy action to counter the pandemic and its consequences, experts said.

Experts also stressed the importance of a nationally representative survey to estimate the true death toll during 2020 and 2021. The sample registration system (SRS) can be one way—it collects data from a representative sample of households, but its process has been delayed due to the pandemic.

India’s reported 329,100 covid-related deaths are said to be a vast undercount. With city-level death registration data lacking, global agencies and researchers have been left to use statistical models to estimate the toll, often leading to controversies and government denials.

Municipal bodies of Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata have released data, either publicly or to news outlets, showing that 2020 saw 11-24% more deaths than usual. A Delhi government official said on condition of anonymity that the data collection exercise had been delayed due to the pandemic as officials worked from home. In Ahmedabad, one of the worst-hit cities during the pandemic, the latest mortality data dates back to 2014.

“Delhi’s five municipalities provide the state government data for the past year by February-March, which is compiled by July,” the Delhi government official said. “However, we haven’t received data from the source this time.”

Giridara Gopal Parameswaran, a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP), Delhi, said systems are computerized enough for health officials to update information on deaths in a server. “Most data is collected timely, but whether to make it public or not depends totally on the government,” he said. “In Mumbai, we have seen better transparency because the government is providing scientists with necessary information on time.”

Data from sources such as SRS could also help estimate deaths by age groups and sex, said Anand Krishnan, a professor of community medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi.

“Knowing the disaggregated death information will help us with future policies,” said Bhramar Mukherjee, professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan. “For example, if a large number of people died in middle age and working age, we need policies for families with loss of income and loss of breadwinners.”

But the SRS data, too, is released every two years, and “we tend to lose a lot” in such systemic delays, said Parameswaran.

Using its own statistical models, The Economist has estimated 1 million deaths in India this year, while The New York Times estimated 4.2 million total deaths. The government called the latter baseless. Regional newspapers across India have visited crematoria to estimate the level of undercounting.

The release of official data by more cities where registration of deaths is typically higher than in rural parts can address the problem, and help policymakers understand the pandemic better, the experts said.

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