Mystery of India's lower death rates seems to defy coronavirus trend

Updated April 24, 2020

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Municipal workers in protective gear stand as an ambulance carrying the body a woman who died due to the coronavirus disease arrives at a crematorium in Ahmedabad, India, April 17. — Reuters
Municipal workers in protective gear stand as an ambulance carrying the body a woman who died due to the coronavirus disease arrives at a crematorium in Ahmedabad, India, April 17. — Reuters

Parts of India have recorded dramatic falls in mortality rates after a nationwide lockdown was imposed to fight the new coronavirus, suggesting there has not been an undetected surge in virus-related deaths.

All over the world, mortality rates are being scrutinised to determine the true impact of the coronavirus, which emerged in China late last year and is known to have infected more than 2.7 million people globally, with nearly 190,000 deaths.

While death rates in some countries have risen sharply in recent weeks, in India the opposite seems to be happening, at least in some places, leaving hospitals, funeral parlours and cremation sites wondering what is going on.

“It’s very surprising for us,” said Shruthi Reddy, chief executive officer of Anthyesti Funeral Services, which operates in the eastern city of Kolkata and the southern tech hub of Bengaluru.

The company handled about five jobs a day in January but has only had about three a day this month.

“We’ve declared employee pay cuts if revenue falls below a threshold,” Reddy said.

Other numbers tell a similar story.

Central Mumbai, home to some 12 million people, saw deaths fall by about 21per cent in March compared with the same month of 2019, according to municipal data.

Overall deaths plummeted 67pc in Ahmedabad, the biggest city in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, over the same period.

Data from at least two other cities, along with accounts from state health officials, show a similar pattern. Half a dozen funeral businesses and crematoriums also reported slumps in business, especially in April.

“If we’re not seeing an increase in deaths, the suspicion that there may be more Covid-19 fatalities out there is not true,” said Giridhar Babu, professor of epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India.

Fewer accidents

Modi imposed a lockdown of India’s 1.3 billion people on March 25 in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected some 23,077 people, killing 718 of them, according to the latest figures.

India has tested about 525,000 people, meaning some 4pc were positive. In the United States, about 18pc of tests are positive, according to the Covid Tracking project.

India’s apparently lower death rates stands in contrast to what has been seen elsewhere.

The Netherlands recorded about 2,000 more deaths than normal in the first week of April, for example, while in Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta the number of funerals rose sharply in March.

Some towns in Italy also saw a jump in recorded deaths.

Indian doctors, officials and crematorium employees suspect the lower death rate is in large part attributable to fewer road and rail accidents.

“Road accident cases, and even patients with alcohol or drug abuse, stroke and heart attacks have been coming in fewer numbers,” said Dr Himanta Biswa Sarma, health minister for the northeastern state of Assam.

Accidents on India’s chaotic roads killed more than 151,400 people in 2018, according to official data, the world’s highest absolute number.

The coronavirus lockdown, which is due to end on May 3, will cut road deaths by at least 15pc this year compared with 2018, Paresh Kumar Goel, a director at the Ministry of Road Transport & Highways, said.

With passenger trains halted, fatalities from all-too-common rail accidents have also plunged. In Mumbai alone, for example, more than half a dozen people typically die every day on the rail network.

Fewer murders too?

Neeraj Kumar, who is in charge of a crematorium on the banks of the holy Ganges river in Uttar Pradesh state, said victims of crime were also not being brought in.

“We used to get at least 10 accident-related bodies every day and many related to murder cases. But after the lockdown we’re only receiving natural death cases,” Kumar said.

The site used to perform up to 30 cremations a day but in the month since March 22, only 43 people had been cremated, Kumar said after leafing through the crematorium’s record book.

But the lower rates might also reflect difficulties in reporting deaths during the lockdown, officials said.

“There could be an increase when the lockdown ends,” said Dr Bhavin Joshi, a senior health department official with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation.

Requests for India-wide data from the national registrar went unanswered, while an official at the New Delhi Municipal Council said they could not provide numbers.

Reuters was also unable to obtain data for the state of West Bengal, where some doctors have accused the government of understating coronavirus deaths.

Only a state-appointed committee is allowed to declare that a patient has died from the virus.