Indian state sharply raises COVID-19 death toll prompting call for wide review

An Indian state has significantly increased its COVID-19 death toll following the discovery of thousands of unreported cases, adding to suspicions that India’s total death toll is well above the official figure.

Indian hospitals ran out of beds and life-saving oxygen during a devastating second wave of coronavirus in April and May, and people died in parking lots outside of hospitals and in their homes.

Many of these deaths weren’t included in COVID-19 numbers, doctors and health experts say.

India has the second highest number of COVID-19 infections in the world after the United States with 29.2 million cases and 359,676 deaths, according to the Department of Health.

But the discovery of several thousand unreported deaths in Bihar state has raised suspicions that many more coronavirus victims are not included in the official figures.

The health department in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, has revised its total death toll related to COVID-19 from about 5,424 on Wednesday to more than 9,429.

The newly reported deaths occurred last month and state officials are investigating the failure, a district health official said, blaming private hospitals for oversight.

“These deaths occurred 15 days ago and have only now been uploaded to the government portal. Some of the private hospitals are being prosecuted,” said the official, who refused to be identified as he is not allowed to speak to the media.

Health experts say they believe coronavirus infections and deaths are both significantly under counted across the country, partly because testing facilities are rare in rural areas, where two-thirds of Indians live, and hospitals are few and far between.

Many people fell ill and died at home without having been tested for the coronavirus.

‘WIDELY WIDELY PROBLEM’

As crematoria struggled with the wave of death in the past two months, many families either laid corpses in the holy Ganges or buried them in shallow graves on its sandbanks.

These people likely would not have been registered as COVID victims.

“Underreporting is a widespread problem that is not strictly deliberate, often due to inadequacies,” Rajib Dasgupta, director of the Center for Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, told Reuters.

“In the rural context, testing is not straightforward, easy, or accessible, whatever states say or claim,” said Dasgupta.

Overall, cases and deaths in India have steadily declined in recent weeks after rising from mid-March.

The official total of cases stood at 29.2 million on Thursday, after increasing 94,052 in the past 24 hours, while the total death toll stood at 359,676, according to the Health Department.

The New York Times estimated deaths based on the number of deaths over time and infection death rates, putting India’s toll at 600,000 to 1.6 million.

The government dismissed these estimates as exaggerated. But the largest opposition party in Congress said other states should follow Bihar’s lead and conduct a review of deaths over the past two months.

“This proves beyond any doubt that the government has been hiding COVID deaths,” said Shama Mohamed, a spokeswoman for Congress, adding that an audit should also be ordered in the major states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

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