Coronavirus | Opeds and editorials

The challenges in counting the dead

Workers in protective suits prepare to cremate the body of a person who died of COVID-19 at Nigam Bodh Ghat in New Delhi on May 29, 2020. FIle

Workers in protective suits prepare to cremate the body of a person who died of COVID-19 at Nigam Bodh Ghat in New Delhi on May 29, 2020. FIle

Compared to other diseases, COVID-19 is highly transmissible. The long-term sequelae of infection are unravelling only now. The only goal is to prevent as many deaths as possible. The proportion of deaths due to COVID-19 (about 2%) is lower than that of SARS (about 9%) or the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (34.4%) and probably higher than that of influenza (0.1%). However, the task of counting deaths attributed to COVID-19 is full of complex challenges.

Assessing fatalities

Globally, the disruption of health services during a pandemic results in the underestimation of any health indicator, including the assessment of fatalities. For estimating death rates, the total number of deaths are usually in the numerator; it is choosing the denominator that is the difficult aspect. The case fatality proportion uses reported deaths in the numerator and reported cases in the denominator; this helps in assessing and comparing clinical severity and effectiveness of clinical outcomes. Delayed reporting of deaths from hospitals, and incomplete and inaccurate reporting of COVID-19-related deaths will affect the numerator. It is recognised that case fatality will not reflect the deaths from COVID-19 as it varies with test rates and strategies used.

Comment | COVID-19 deaths may be higher than reported

The infection fatality rate (IFR) due to COVID-19 uses the same numerator. The denominator comprises the total number of infections, derived from seroprevalence studies in the total population. IFR provides real estimates of COVID-19 death rates, including the presence of unreported infections in the denominator. However, differences in sampling strategy and methods of seroprevalence studies, demographics and healthcare resources will result in incomparable seroprevalence estimates. As we witnessed in India, testing, provision of healthcare and treatment improve progressively. This too will change both the numerator and denominator over time.

In addition, we can estimate the crude mortality rate by having the number of people in the area in the denominator. Generally expressed as deaths per million, this provides the probability that any individual in the population will die from the disease. This too is affected by incomplete and inaccurate reporting of COVID-19 deaths.

Finally, all-cause excess mortality can be estimated by calculating the number of deaths above expected baseline levels, regardless of the reported cause of death, and provides an overall impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data | Is India undercounting its COVID-19 deaths?

The seroprevalence surveys are useful to obtain an unbiased estimate of deaths due to COVID-19. Global evidence indicates that the IFR is less than 1% of total infections. We can estimate this only when we have realistic data on total infections in the country, obtained from repeated nationwide seroprevalence surveys.

In the absence of IFR, deaths per million is an alternative estimate. Table-1 shows the deaths per million in the capital cities of the nations that have more than 1,00,000 confirmed cases. The deaths per million population roughly correlates with a higher proportion of persons above 65 years. The exceptions are Peru and Brazil, which are known to take delayed action. An honourable exception is Germany, which has the best preventive and curative services compared to the rest of the countries.

Registering deaths

It is important to get baseline estimates of deaths to estimate the excess mortality. Currently, although mandatory, only about 86% of the deaths get registered, which has increased from 66.9% in 2009, indicating that 14% do not get registered in India independent of the COVID-19 crisis. The annual crude death rate in India is 0.73 per 100 persons. The deaths attributed to COVID-19 in 2020 are 0.028 per 100 persons, which varies from 0.21 in Delhi followed by Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Puducherry and Karnataka (Table-2). This is mostly a function of better death reporting, with three of these States having 100% death registration and two States registering more than 90% of deaths. The registration system has further challenges with a high proportion of unclassifiable deaths, long delays and irregular publication of statistics. In addition, lack of training, resources and systematic screening results in making medical ascertainment of every death far from practical in India. Once efforts are made to register every death, the government should invest in establishing the cause of death, linking the data to electronic health records and coding the data.

Also read | 444 deaths added to Chennai’s COVID-19 toll

The deaths attributed to COVID-19 in all the South Asian countries are comparable and lower than the developed countries. We will know the actual number of deaths when all the deaths are compiled by the Civil Registration System, perhaps more than a year from now. Once known, attributing the cause of death, although difficult, can provide delineation of causes and excess mortality due to COVID-19 in India. As per the ICMR-IHME-PHFI’s India disease burden study, non-communicable diseases-related deaths caused by cancer, diabetes, cirrhosis, etc. constitute 72.5% of deaths, while 27.5% of deaths are caused by HIV/AIDS, injury, suicide, etc (Table-2).

Table-2: Projected deaths for 2020 and its causes including COVID-19

Andaman & Nicobar Islands

2237

399000

2913

801

2112

21

0.72

Andhra Pradesh

375777

52504000

383279

105402

277877

2203

0.57

Arunachala Pradesh

3860

1519000

11089

3049

8039

3

0.03

Assam

142605

34668000

253076

69596

183480

155

0.06

Bihar

213989

121302000

885505

243514

641991

413

0.05

Chandigarh

23330

1193000

8709

2395

6314

26

0.30

Chattisgarh

177549

29109000

212496

58436

154059

104

0.05

Dadar nagar haveli

2174

1018000

7431

2044

5388

2

0.03

Delhi

145533

20193000

147409

40537

106871

4139

2.81

Goa

13072

1549000

11308

3110

8198

86

0.76

Gujarat

433256

68862000

502693

138240

364452

2695

0.54

Haryana

185842

29077000

212262

58372

153890

500

0.24

Himachal Pradesh

41833

7347000

53633

14749

38884

18

0.03

Jammu and Kashmir

39410

13305000

97127

26710

70417

490

0.50

Jharkhand

102729

37937000

276940

76159

200782

192

0.07

Karnataka

483511

66322000

484151

133141

351009

3398

0.70

Kerala

258530

35307000

257741

70879

186862

120

0.05

ladhak

 

295000

2154

592

1561

9

0.42

Madhya Pradesh

424257

83374000

608630

167373

441257

1033

0.17

Maharashtra

667900

123295000

900054

247515

652539

18306

2.03

Manipur

4476

3134000

22878

6292

16587

12

0.05

Meghalaya

14779

3256000

23769

6536

17232

6

0.03

Mizoram

5525

1204000

8789

2417

6372

0.00

Nagaland

828

2171000

15848

4358

11490

8

0.05

Odissa

328799

43852000

320120

88033

232087

296

0.09

Puducherry

12839

1537000

11220

3086

8135

91

0.81

Punjab

213234

30099000

219723

60424

159299

636

0.29

Rajasthan

443173

78273000

571393

157133

414260

811

0.14

Sikkim

3386

670000

4891

1345

3546

1

0.02

Tamil nadu

574006

76049000

555158

152668

402489

5159

0.93

Telangana

136528

37473000

273553

75227

198326

654

0.24

Tripura

29080

4032000

29434

8094

21339

43

0.15

Uttar pradesh

906653

227943000

1663984

457596

1206388

2176

0.13

Uttarkhand

47894

11270000

82271

22625

59646

136

0.17

West Bengal

490530

97516000

711867

195763

516103

2149

0.30

Total

6950607

1347054000

9833494

2704211

7129283

46091

0.47

*Source: World Bank

Deaths cannot be hidden in the case of COVID-19; sooner or later, they get reported due to a vigilant media and an active civil society. Due to such efforts, at least five cities in India have reconciled the death numbers. To obtain unbiased, reliable estimates, nationally representative verbal autopsy surveys such as the Million Death Study can be helpful. In the meantime, India has to adopt a strategy of transparency in data flow and reporting, with increased investments in innovations for improving data collection and reporting.

Data |  Tracking death rates helps gauge India's COVID-19 response better

Due to these inherent challenges, India and other countries with low mortality are subject to increased, and welcome, scrutiny. However, commentators should not be tempted to use estimates beyond the range that can be inferred by evidence. The assumptions about undercounting deaths should be realistic. With no supporting evidence such as a surge in numbers from burial grounds or in the neighbourhood, it is counter-intuitive to assume that we have under-counted thousands of deaths. Alas, counting the deaths is a deadly challenge out there.

Giridhara R. Babu is a Professor of Epidemiology at the Indian Institute of Public Health, PHFI, Bengaluru. The author acknowledges Deepa R., Daisy Solomon of IIPH Bengaluru and Jeevan Raksha for help in data compilation and proof reading


Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | May 23, 2022 1:41:38 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/the-challenges-in-counting-the-dead/article62107605.ece