The Indian government is once again at odds with an international organization. The stumbling block this time is the Covid-19 mortality data released by the World Health Organization (WHO), according to which 4.7 million people died in India between March 2020 and December 2021. This number is ten times higher than the official figures out from the government.
As expected, the blame game between the government and the opposition has begun in India. The government has dismissed WHO’s claim while questioning its methodology. A statement from the Union Ministry of Health said: “Despite India’s objections to the process, methodology and outcome of this modelling, the WHO has released the excess mortality estimates without adequately addressing India’s concerns.”
A report published in the New York Times last week had already pointed to India’s objections to the WHO report, which had material to stir up trouble for the BJP-led union government amid an opposition that has consistently challenged the prime minister’s strategy Narendra Modi has been targeted with Covid-19.
It is another matter that despite the opposition’s attempt to corner the Union government on the issue of abusive treatment of Covid-related deaths, the latter recently recorded a resounding victory in four out of five states that participated in elections , which allowed the BJP to assert that the opposition’s criticism of the Modi government was purely political. In fact, the government and its ruling party have lauded themselves for handling the Covid-19 disaster far better than any advanced country, including the US, by citing the fewest Covid-19-related deaths per capita.
When dates are not acceptable
The Centre, particularly under Modi, has often taken a tough stance towards international institutions when a report has questioned India’s performance on various human development indicators. Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman previously dismissed the World Inequality Report, which is published by the World Inequality Lab, as flawed and raised questions about its methodology. Speaking at Rajya Sabha, she said: “The World Inequality Report, which describes India as a ‘poor and very unequal country’, is flawed and based on questionable methodology.”
The report found that India was a poor and highly unequal country, with the top 1 percent of the population owning more than a fifth of total national income in 2021. The people in the bottom half therefore had only 13 percent of the income for the report.
Another report that did not go down well with the Union government was the Global Hunger Index, which ranked India behind its poorer neighbors such as Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.
When dates are acceptable
There are times when the methodology of international organizations is not only accepted but also showcased. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business ranking was one such report, always celebrated by the current government until canceled by the World Bank itself. Between 2015 and 2019, India improved its ease of doing business rankings from 142nd to 63rd, making the government go ballistic about their achievements. It is another matter that the World Bank’s methodology for data released in 2018 and 2020 came under scrutiny, giving certain nations, including China, Saudi Arabia and others, undue advantage.
Similarly, Modi has praised India’s performance in the Global Innovation Index ranking, which has improved from 81st in 2015 to 46th in 2022. Ecosystem in the country that has bolstered India’s image as a tech hub in the world, making it competitive with the US and China in fields such as fintech, space technology and Web3.
politics and data poverty
The politics of data is not new. India has traditionally been considered poor in data coverage and WHO data on the excess deaths from Covid-19 relies on mathematical modeling for India due to the lack of all-cause mortality (ACM) data at the national level. Various other countries collecting ACM data have not been attributed such unusually high numbers of Covid-19-related deaths by the WHO. According to the global health agency, India has provided data from as many as 17 states (out of 26) during the pandemic period, “but this number varies from month to month”.
Obviously, this hasn’t gone down well with the government, which believes India has a robust system for recording deaths. “We have a robust system of CRS (Civil Registration System) and we released this report yesterday. We have an actual number of deaths for 2020. According to the law and the schedule, the numbers for 2021 are also shown,” said Dr. VK Paul, member of Niti Aayog, a news outlet after the release of the WHO report. When he took on the WHO, he claimed: “We want to … [the WHO] to have used these numbers. Unfortunately, despite our strong letter… [and] Communication at ministerial level, … [the WHO has] decided to use the numbers based on modeling and assumptions.”
Paul’s statement shows the political importance of the deaths from Covid-19 for governments around the world. Former US President Donald Trump lost the 2021 election due to perceptions of abuse of Covid-19 during his tenure. Many governments around the world have faced challenges controlling anti-incumbency caused by the chaos wrought by the pandemic over the past two years. While the Modi government has managed to control the narrative in its favor over a period of time, it is still vulnerable to such reports that question the government’s claim to have managed the pandemic by throwing drastically higher numbers .
Statistically, it must be emphasized that the WHO did indeed rely on a mathematical model that could overestimate the number of deaths. It must also be noted that in the report, the WHO accepted that its extrapolation of Covid-19 deaths was based on news reports by journalists who received information about the right to information in India.
The result of this way of calculating a mortality number can be acceptable to governments if the result has no political cost. In that case, it’s safe to assume what’s at stake for the Modi government, which goes the extra mile to stay a step ahead in the perception game. Because of this, the true number of deaths from Covid-19 in a country may never be fully known. No institution or state was prepared to deal with the pandemic. They are the least willing to deal with the actual number of deaths it has caused.