Counting the dead

Context: Undercounting of COVID-related deaths in India 

What is the issue? 

Due to gaps in the civil registration data, the actual death toll due to COVID is still a mystery. There’s no way to know it because the aggregated all-India civil registration data is only available until 2018. 

What is the impact of lack of data? Or why we need data? 

The lack of data means health care policy is based on guesswork 

  • Policymakers cannot prioritize, and allocate resources effectively. It is also difficult to review policy decisions, and suggest course corrections.  
  • Insurers cannot reliably compute life premiums. Even road and rail safety could improve with good, timely data inputs, given over 200,000 Indians die annually in accidents. 
  • Lack of data also creates problems when it comes to claiming citizenship. 
  • Massive undercounting of deaths: The evidence pieced together by analysts suggests massive undercounting of Covid-related deaths. The reported figures from states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Uttar Pradesh indicate overall excess deaths in the past two to three months. 
What are the necessary steps? 

A comprehensive overhaul of the civil registration system is necessary.  

  • These data must also be openly searchable, and released as close to real time as possible.  
  • Increasing awareness: Citizens must be encouraged to register births and deaths as a matter of course. 
  • Medical certificates must also be more informative with respect to real, and underlying causes. 
  • To alleviate privacy concerns, such data could also be anonymized before release (though it could be de-anonymized by using the available open data of the voters’ lists) 

Covid tragedy can be used as an opportunity to revamp our civil registration system for a stronger, resilient and a long-term healthcare policy. 


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