The number of “excess deaths” registered by the Civil Registration System (CRS) in West Bengal ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit (from April 2020 to May 2021), was an estimated 1,20,227, which is 11.1 times the official reported figure of 10,787 deaths for the same period.
Five districts — Darjeeling, Jhargram, Kalimpong, North 24 Parganas and Paschim Medinipur — were not considered for this analysis as either the online registration data was incomplete for all years (Darjeeling and Kalimpong) or for some years, 2018 in particular (Jhargram, North 24 Parganas and Paschim Medinipur).
The high multiple of excess deaths over the COVID-19 toll was a characteristic of both the first wave in 2020 and the more lethal second wave in 2021. The “excess deaths” figure for April to December 2020 of 64,520 was 9.4 times the COVID-19 toll (6,833) while the same for 2021 (55,207) was 14.1 times the COVID-19 toll (10,787). In April and May 2021 alone — a period that coincided with elections in the State, there were 51,353 “excess deaths”, 14.4 times the official COVID-19 death toll of 5,212 in these districts.
The overall COVID-19 death toll for all 23 districts as of 31 May 2021 was 15,536, which has since increased to 18,073 as of July 25.
The figures were arrived at from data on deaths registered month-wise in the online Civil Registration System from January 2018 to May 2021 in West Bengal and accessed by The Hindu . Data for Kolkata was added to the tally from the Kolkata Municipal Corporation figures. As with other States, not all excess deaths could be related to COVID-19, but a bulk of them will be, during the pandemic period.
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The estimated undercount factor of 11.1 for the State (without five districts in the analysis) is higher than the factor for States such as Haryana (7.3), Tamil Nadu (6.4 adjusted to 4.4 if CRS COVID-19 tally is considered), Karnataka (4.3) and Kerala (0.42 based on reconciled COVID-19 tally) but is lower than that for Madhya Pradesh (23.8) and Andhra Pradesh (17.9) if the same baseline is considered (deaths registered in 2018 and 2019).
The total number of excess deaths for these States (using the same baseline) for the period April 2020 to May 2021 was 8,59,006 which is 8.22 times the official COVID-19 tally for the same period (1,04,491 deaths).
The online data for the 18 districts showed that 3,68,477 and 4,10,503 deaths were registered in West Bengal in the CRS, which were close to 94.4% and 90% of the deaths reported by the Annual Report on Vital Statistics based on CRS 2019 for these years.
Excess deaths were calculated as the difference between the registered deaths in the pandemic period and the average number of deaths registered in 2018 and 2019 for the same months. The CRS annual report for 2019 notes that death registration in the State improved from an estimated 91.8% in 2018 to 100% in 2019. An estimated 91.7% of all deaths were also registered within 21 days of the occurrence according to the same report, which is relatively high compared to other States.
A district-wise look at the excess deaths and their multiple over the COVID-19 toll showed that rural districts such as Purba Bardhaman (7,556 excess deaths — 60.4 times the official toll of 125), Puruliya (6,224 and a multiple of 58.7), Cooch Behar (4,429 and 52.7), Malda (5,859 and 32.7), Bankura (6,986 and 31.9) and Murshidabad (8,378 and 30.4) had high number of “excess deaths” and multiples.
Only Paschim Bardhaman (home to Asansol and Durgapur) with 9,652 deaths — 32.6 times the official COVID-19 toll of 296 — had a high multiple among urban districts in the State. Kolkata had an estimated 12,708 excess deaths, but they were only 2.9 times the official toll of 4,456 which signified a relatively better monitoring of COVID-19 related deaths in the State capital relative to other parts of the largely rural and agrarian State.
“During the second wave, in West Bengal, there was marked deficiency in COVID testing facilities, in rural areas and even in towns and cities. In many places people had to travel a lot to get tested. As a result, many patients with COVID-like symptoms could not get tested and diagnosed. Therefore, a certain section of deaths was not included as COVID deaths. Also, patients dying from post COVID complications were not counted in COVID deaths,” renowned public health expert Punyabrata Gun said on the excess COVID deaths in West Bengal.
Dr. Gun added that lack of testing and lack of infrastructure for COVID-19 related healthcare could be reasons for higher deaths than what was officially reported.
Sajal Biswas, general secretary of Service Doctors' Forum in West Bengal said such a situation where the actual COVID-19 deaths are much higher than reported deaths are a result of multiple reasons which include deliberate fact suppression along with inadequate COVID testing facilities which resulted in a large number of deaths without any diagnosis.
“There was no follow up post COVID patients and thus death due to post complications was not recorded. There has also been a situation where deaths due to comorbidity were not counted as COVID deaths. The suppression of facts was more in certain districts in North and South 24 Parganas and Darjeeling. If these deaths were counted the number of deaths will be much higher,” Dr Biswas said. He added that unrecorded deaths and undiagnosed cases were more in rural areas than urban areas.
(Data compiled and aggregated by Pratap Vardhan. With inputs from Shiv Sahay Singh in Kolkata)