India sees biggest spike in COVID deaths after state revises toll

The world’s highest single-day toll reported after Bihar state revises figures to account for deaths at home or in private hospitals.

Multiple funeral pyres for COVID victims burn at the Ghazipur crematorium in New Delhi [File: Amit Sharma/AP]

India has reported its highest ever single-day death toll from COVID-19 – 6,148 deaths – after an eastern state sharply raised its figures to account for people who succumbed to the disease at home or in private hospitals.

The health department of Bihar, one of India’s poorest states, revised its total COVID-related death toll on Wednesday to more than 9,400 from about 5,400.

The United States recorded 5,444 COVID-19 deaths on February 12.

India’s total COVID caseload now stands at nearly 29.2 million after rising by 94,052 in the past 24 hours, while total fatalities are at 359,676, according to data from the health ministry.

The country has recorded fewer than 100,000 daily new COVID cases for three straight days. Active cases stand at nearly 1.17 million, according to the ministry.

A total of 242.7 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered nationwide, including 3.4 million over the last 24 hours, the health ministry said.

India has the second-highest number of coronavirus cases in the world after the US. It stands third behind the US and Brazil in terms of COVID deaths.

Why Bihar revised its numbers?

Bihar revised its toll after the regional High Court asked for an audit of casualties during the second wave of the coronavirus in April and May.

The court’s order followed allegations that the state government was hiding the scale of infections and deaths.

An audit of deaths revealed that while 1,600 people died of COVID in Bihar between March 2020 and March 2021, the number of deaths from April to June 7 this year was a staggering 7,775, about six times more, India’s NDTV reported.

State capital Patna bore the brunt of the outbreak, accounting for a total of 2,303 deaths, media reports said.

The discovery of thousands of unreported deaths in Bihar lends weight to suspicion that India’s overall death tally is significantly more than 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 hospitals and at their homes.

Many of those deaths were not recorded in COVID-19 tallies, doctors and health experts say.

The newly reported deaths had occurred last month and state officials were investigating the lapse, a district health official said, blaming the oversight on private hospitals.

“These deaths occurred 15 days ago and were only uploaded now in the government portal. Action will be taken against some of the private hospitals,” said the official, who declined to be identified as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

‘Under-reporting a widespread problem’

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

Many people have fallen ill and died at home without being tested for the coronavirus.

As crematoriums struggled to handle the wave of deaths over the past two months, many families placed bodies in the Ganges river or buried them in shallow graves on its sandbanks.

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

“Under-reporting is a widespread problem, not necessarily deliberate, often because of inadequacies,” Rajib Dasgupta, head of the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, told Reuters news agency.

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

The New York Times estimated deaths based on death counts over time and infection fatality rates and put India’s toll at 600,000 to 1.6 million.

The government dismissed those estimates as exaggerated. But the main opposition Congress party said that other states must follow Bihar’s example and conduct a review of deaths over the past two months.

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

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies