Slight rise in mortality in state in 2020; marked uptick in Pune, Mumbai hints at uncounted Covid deaths
As the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic subsides, the extent of loss of life caused by the virus remains contested. There have been claims – by politicians and infectious diseases experts – that the number of deaths caused by the pandemic could be many times higher than the officially reported numbers.
One important way to arrive at a more realistic death toll, as per the experts, is to gauge the ‘excess deaths’ recorded in pandemic year after comparing them to pre-pandemic years and factoring in the natural growth trend. For this, deaths registered by the Civil Registration System (CRS) of the state governments act as a reliable data source.
While some states have created dedicated portals for the distribution of certificates and real-time data collection, in Maharashtra the process remains cumbersome. Most agencies responsible for recording births and deaths– municipal bodies or panchayats –send the death registration data to the state authorities manually. This means that the state-level agency, State Bureau of Health Intelligence Vital Statistics, responsible for collecting the data and reporting to the Registrar General of India, completes data collection three months after a calendar year came to an end. It reports the same to the Registrar by end of July, every year.
The Indian Express spoke to officials at the Bureau to find out that, so far, agencies in only 25 districts have submitted the record about the birth and date that happened in the year 2020 in the respective jurisdiction. Data is awaited from 10 other distsricts.
Govardhan Gaikwad, Deputy Director, Health Services, and Deputy Chief Registrar of Birth and Death in the state, says that every year the birth and death reports are sent for publication by end of July. This year, since the receipt of data has slowed down from the agencies issuing the certificates, it may take a bit longer. This means that data pertaining to all-causes deaths registered in the state for 2020 may be available only after a few months, and that pertaining to mortality in the second wave during February-May 2021, can only be available halfway through the next year.
“Government offices of three different types are involved in recording the births and deaths happening in the respective jurisdiction. While some submit the data using online means, most still depend on the manual method. This delays the receipt of the data by us, and we have to process and send it further,” explained Gaikwad.
Although Maharashtra does not have a portal of its own -like Rajasthan’s Pehchan for this purpose – it could use the national portal crsorgi.gov.in.
“Many agencies don’t use the online medium for real-time reporting of the data because it’s not mandatory as per the extant law. Also, some offices may be discouraged by the connectivity issues,” added Gaikwad.
Slight rise in mortality in state in 2020; marked uptick in Pune, Mumbai hinting at uncounted Covid deaths
The data that has been so far compiled by the state CRS shows a slight uptick in the number of deaths in 2020, the year in which the first Covid-19 wave hit the country, when compared with the previous year. The CRS data is not yet available for the more devastating second wave which hit the state between February and May 2021.
However, significantly, cities like Mumbai and Pune, which were the worst affected by the pandemic, show significant ‘excess deaths’ in 2020 when compared with registered deaths in 2019 and 2018.
Data submitted by 25 out of 35 districts to the state CRS shows that 5,78,912 deaths were registered in these districts in 2020. In the previous year, ie 2019 (the pre-pandemic year), these 25 districts had registered 5,16,138 deaths from various causes. (Cumulative deaths in all 35 districts for this year were 6,93,800.)
In 2018, another pre-pandemic year, these 25 districts had recorded 4,88,599 deaths. (Cumulative deaths for all 35 districts for this year were 6,67,900.)
Thus, considering only 25 states for want of data for the entire state, the year 2020 saw 62,774 additional deaths compared to 2019 which, in turn, had seen 27,539 more registered deaths than in 2018.
As per the state health department, a total of 49,521 Covid deaths occurred in the state in 2020. Of these, 35,450 were reported from the 25 districts that we are considering.
Cities like Mumbai and Pune showed a marked increase in the registered deaths during 2020, hinting at the possibility of uncounted Covid-19 deaths.
Mumbai had recorded 88,852 and 91,223 deaths in 2018 and 2019 respectively. The number rose to 1,11,942 in 2020, thus recording a jump of 20,719 deaths over the previous year. As per the Health Department records, Mumbai saw 11,125 Covid deaths in 2020.
In Pune, which had recorded 61,824 and 63,630 deaths in 2018 and 2019 respectively, the CRS recorded 79,683 deaths in 2019. While the rise in recorded deaths was 16,053, the Health Department counted only 7767 Covid deaths in Pune in 2020.