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Covid deaths many times official estimates: Survey

17% survey respondents said they lost someone in their household due to covid-19 since the beginning of 2021 (HT)Premium
17% survey respondents said they lost someone in their household due to covid-19 since the beginning of 2021 (HT)

Fresh data from the latest round of YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey shows that a majority of respondents lost someone close to them this year. Most respondents reported difficulties in getting hospital beds or oxygen for their own families or someone in their locality

According to official statistics, less than 300,000 Indians have died of covid-19 in 2021. However, the latest data from the YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey suggests that this is most likely a colossal underestimation of actual deaths.

The YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey was conducted online during June-July 2021, and covered 10,285 respondents from unique households spread across 203 cities and towns. 86% of these households belong to the most affluent socio-economic class, NCCS-A, while the rest belong to poorer households. The total number of active internet users in urban India was 323 million in 2020, according to the industry body Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI), and 43% of them (139 million) belonged to the NCCS-A category. Assuming an average household size of 3.9 (the average urban family size estimated by a National Sample Survey study in 2018), this translates to 35.6 million NCCS-A households that are online. With 17% of them (or 17.1% to be precise) reporting deaths in the family this year because of covid, we arrive at an estimate of 6.09 million deaths among this socio-economic group of urban affluent internet users. This estimate relies on the assumption that at most one death occurred in a household, making it a slightly conservative estimate.

The scale of the covid-19 tragedy is evident from the fact that six in ten respondents reported losing someone in their own family or close circle. Among the largest Indian cities, Delhi and Hyderabad saw relatively higher death tolls, the survey suggests.

So far, most reports have relied on the civil registration system (CRS) or National Health Mission (NHM) data to estimate the pandemic toll. A recent research paper by the economist Arvind Subramanian and his co-authors suggested an excess mortality toll ranging from 3.4 million to 4.9 million. Our estimate based on the latest survey is the first-of-its-kind figure from a large-scale national survey, albeit one that is restricted to urban netizens.

Systemic Collapse

Government officials have sought to underplay the extent of under-reporting in official data even as they brush aside complaints about shortages of hospital beds and oxygen during the pandemic peak. Replying to a question in the Rajya Sabha on 20 July, the Union health minister said that “no such reports of patients dying due to shortage of oxygen and lack of hospital facilities" were received from any state.

But the respondents of the YouGov-Mint-CPR Millennial survey reported, in large numbers, that they knew of patients who faced difficulties in getting a bed or oxygen cylinders in the past few months. 46% of respondents know of cases when a patient lost their life due to lack of medical supplies, including oxygen. 63% reported that they themselves or someone in their family or in the immediate neighbourhood had difficulty finding hospital beds or oxygen cylinders or both. Over 40% also experienced trouble in getting required medicines and treatment.

States of Despair

As health is the state subject, death numbers are collected from hospitals by state governments. After the Union health minister’s claim that no deaths took place due to oxygen shortage, state after state - from Maharashtra to Bihar - joined the chorus, saying they had adequate or surplus supply of oxygen , and no deaths took place because of oxygen shortages.

But the survey indicates otherwise, with a large proportion of respondents across states reporting patients who lost their lives due to lack of oxygen. In Maharashtra for instance, 44% respondents know of a patient losing their life due to lack of oxygen, failure in getting hospital admission, or lack of medicines. The share of such respondents was highest in Andhra Pradesh (58%) and Uttar Pradesh (56%). Kerala (22%) fared relatively better on this score. The state-wise figures should however be seen only as rough estimates given the wide variation in the share of urban population and the share of survey respondents across states.

Collateral Damage

During the peak of the second wave, as several hospitals prioritised covid care, non-covid patients found it difficult to access medical care. About four in ten respondents said that non-covid patients in their locality had a difficult time getting admitted, comparable to the share of respondents who reported difficulties for covid patients.

The Yougov-Mint-CPR Millennial Survey was conducted jointly by the Indian arm of the global market research firm YouGov, Mint, and the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Policy Research (CPR). Roughly half the respondents were millennials, the rest were pre-millennials (40+) or post-millennials (aged 18-24). The survey is the sixth of a series of bi-annual surveys aimed at examining the aspirations, anxieties and attitudes of India’s digital natives.

The findings of the latest survey illustrate, in great detail, the extraordinary toll of the pandemic. They also serve an important reminder on the need to do all it takes to avoid a deadly third wave.

This is the second of a four-part data journalism series on the covid experiences of India’s digital natives. The first part focused on the vaccination attitudes and experiences of different social groups.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of the story mis-estimated the number of covid deaths based on the assumption that the Yougov-Mint-CPR survey represented all urban netizens. A review of the data and the methodology showed that the distribution of respondents is skewed towards urban affluent netizens. Hence the estimated number of covid deaths has been revised downward to 6.09 million among urban affluent netizens (from 13.9 million deaths among urban netizens in the earlier version). The survey data does not suggest any statistically significant difference in death rates between different socio-economic groups (NCCS-A and NCCS-B households, for instance). Yet, given that the survey itself is skewed towards relatively affluent households (NCCS-A), it is only fair that the death estimate is limited to the demographic that has been well-represented in the survey.

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