Capital saw three times excess deaths during second wave compared to Delhi govt data of COVID-19 deaths

As per Delhi’s urban local bodies, 1,14,872 deaths were reported from January-June 2021. Delhi govt’s COVID-19 health bulletin for the same period stated that only 14,441 COVID-19 deaths occurred

Capital saw three times excess deaths during second wave compared to Delhi govt data of COVID-19 deaths

Ashlin Mathew

There has been close to three times the number of excess deaths in Delhi from January 2021 to June 2021 when compared to the COVID-19 death data released by the Delhi government during the same period. This means that close to two-thirds of COVID-19 deaths have been grossly under-counted.

According to data obtained from all five of Delhi’s urban local bodies, from January 2021-June 2021, 1,14,872 deaths have been reported. However, the average death count of the last three years (2018, 2019 and 2020) is 72,567. The difference in deaths is 42,305.

The Delhi government’s COVID-19 health bulletin for the same period states that only 14,441 COVID-19 deaths have occurred. This points to 27,864 under-counted deaths from January to June 2021 for which the only plausible explanation is COVID-19 deaths as it was during this period that the national capital reeled under the COVID-19 second wave.

The excess deaths were calculated as the difference between the total number of registered deaths month-wise from January and June and the average number of deaths registered for the same months in 2018, 2019 and 2020.

This information has come to light in responses to queries sought under the Right to Information Act by rights activist Kanhaiya Kumar.

This comes at a time when COVID-19 cases are escalating in Delhi causing many to worry as the national capital recorded the most cases of Omicron in the country at 142. Delhi reported 331 new COVID-19 cases, one death, and 144 recoveries in the last 24 hours, with its active caseload standing at 1,289. The country reported 6,358 Covid cases over the past 24 hours, taking the total active caseload to 75,456.

During the peak of the second wave in Delhi in April and May 2021, there was a steady climb in cases going from 2,720 on April 1 to 27,421 on May 1, 2021. It was then that there was a struggle for oxygen, hospital beds and medicine with both Delhi government run and private hospitals raising alarms on social media due to scarcity of oxygen supply.

It was reported that more than six hospitals in the city had run out of oxygen on several days in the month leaving them with no option but to discharge severely ill patients.

Describing the excess deaths, Dr Anand Krishnan, professor at the Centre for Community Medicine, said that the excess deaths could have three components: deaths directly attributable to COVID-19; deaths indirectly attributable to COVID-19, which occur as a consequence of infection but not directly due to illness. Finally, deaths attributed to the pandemic but not to Covid-19, which mean those not infected but who died due to altered access to health services; psychological effects of distancing; and economic changes.

Senior public health researcher at the George Institute of Global Health, Dr Oommen John, explained that the difference between actual deaths attributed to COVID-19 versus all-cause mortality or excess deaths during a defined period is a reflection of the inefficiencies around medical certification of the cause of death.

Citing an example, John said that a person who tested positive for COVID-19, but died due to a respiratory failure three weeks after the first test would be counted as a respiratory system related death and not as a COVID-19 death. “In the absence of a standardised electronic health record to access the clinical conditions that preceded death, the health systems provided the milieu for missing the true cause of death,” added John.

The difference in data is particularly stark in the months of March to June across all the five local bodies. Delhi’s local government is made up of five urban local bodies: the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), the Delhi Cantonment Board (DCB), the North Delhi Municipal Corporation, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC), and the East Delhi Municipal Corporation (EDMC).

The Delhi government reported only 117 COVID-19 deaths in March 2021, 5120 in April, 8090 in May and 740 in June 2021. This is in sharp contrast to the data obtained from all the municipal corporations.

“Even during non-pandemic times, the cause of death as documented on the death certificate varies significantly if one were to closely evaluate the clinical symptoms and history of conditions that preceded the eventuality,” reiterated John.

Adding to it, Krishnan underscored that some of the COVID-19 cases and deaths were missed as “we did not manage to test everyone with symptoms due to overload on the system, and some because people did not come forward”.

The DCB recorded 1,619 deaths in May 2021, when the average for the same month across 2018, 2019 and 2020 is 128 deaths. Delhi Cantonment houses the Indian Army’s Delhi HQ, Army and Air Force Public Schools and several defence-related institutions. In April 2021, during the beginning of the COVID-19second wave in Delhi, the Indian Army had announced that the Base Hospital in the area was being converted into an exclusive COVID-19 facility for Indian armed forces and veterans.

SDMC registered higher number of deaths than the previous three year average from Jan to June, with the highest for June 2021. In January 2021, SDMC recorded 9042 deaths, while the three-year average for the month was 3,596 deaths; more than 2.5 times.

In February, 9167 deaths were reported, with the average being 3,354. In March, 8,647 deaths were registered, and the three-year average 4,363. In May, 4,725 deaths were recorded and 3,145 was the average. In June, 8,665 deaths were recorded, and the average was 3,423 deaths.

The North Delhi Municipal Corporation recorded the highest anomaly in deaths in May and June 2021 when 9,594 and 7,469 deaths were respectively recorded. The average deaths across the previous three years are 3,616 and 4,293 respectively.

As per EDMC records, deaths in May 2021 stood at 6,416 and the three-year average is 1,605.

The deaths recorded across New Delhi Municipal Council showed only a slight variation in numbers. In May 2021, the council recorded 3,493 deaths, when the three-year average for the month is 2,227 deaths. Most government offices in the national capital fall under this council.

“The operational definitions of active case of COVID 19 and over emphasis on co-morbidity related deaths could have also contributed to under counting of COVID deaths,” explained John.

National Herald made several calls, sent emails and messages to the Director General of Health Services in Delhi Dr Nutan Mundeja, but got no response.

The state health minister Satyendar Jain did not answer any calls and did not respond to the messages too. The article will be updated if and when they respond.

The difference in death numbers between the official COVID-19 death numbers and that provided by the local bodies is not so stark from July to December 2020, which reveals much less fudging of data in the previous year.

During July to December 2020, the Delhi government recorded 7,794 COVID-19 deaths and during the same period 73,757 deaths were registered by all the five local bodies in the National Capital. The average deaths during the same period for previous two years have been 74,808.

In May 2020, an analysis of the COVID-19 data put out by the Delhi government had revealed that the state had been hiding the number of deaths due to coronavirus in the National Capital. It was then corroborated by the excess number of cremations following COVID-19 protocol.

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