Delhi’s Covid toll: Number game can be manipulated for any political narrative

Till the reliable data become available, it’s more of an open season: one can let fly whatever narratives one wishes to in accordance with anecdotal accounts, one’s own impressions, or one’s politics

Kapil Malhotra |

cremation Covid India

A Delhi crematorium during the second Covid-19 wave (Photo courtesy:

On June 3, 2021, The Times of India (TOI) reported that “more than 34,750 death certificates were issued in the city [Delhi] in April and May [2021] when the pandemic was raging in the city.”

The report further stated that “this is a 250% increase over the figure of 9,916 certificates issued in the corresponding period last year (i.e. in April and May 2020 combined).” The report thus implicitly added its weight to the outcry about Covid cases and deaths being either greatly underestimated or, in fact, deliberately under reported by the “government.” This issue of “underreporting” has made unending and lurid headlines in India and around the world, with estimates that range across a very wide spectrum.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into the TOI report and other available data to assess if we can arrive at a reasonable estimate of any underreporting or underestimation of the number of Covid deaths in Delhi so far, and the extent of its magnitude.


Average number of deaths in Delhi in pre-Covid years

We start with the baseline data about the number of deaths in Delhi in a normal year. For the two most recent pre-Covid years, namely 2018 and 2019, the average daily number of deaths in Delhi was 399 and 398, respectively. These data are available in the Delhi government’s official publication, Annual Report of Registration of Births and Deaths in Delhi, for the years concerned. In other words, Delhi averaged approximately 12,000 deaths per month in the most recent two pre-Covid years. We will use this same figure of 12,000 normal deaths per year for 2020 and 2021, as well.


What TOI’s death certificate data tell us—and how it misleads

TOI reported that the number of death certificates issued in Delhi were as follows:

April-May 2020: 9,916

April-May 2021: 34,750

The data for the two-month period April-May 2020 appear to be palpably erroneous because these two months would each have recorded approximately 12,000 normal, non-Covid deaths as well, i.e. a total of 24,000 normal deaths. In addition, there were additional deaths due to Covid. So the figure of 9,916 death certificates cited by ToI for April-May 2020 would seem to be flawed and can be ignored.

Coming to the two-month period April-May 2021, let’s again first reckon for 24,000 normal deaths in Delhi during this period. In other words, normal deaths would account for 24,000 of the 34,750 death certificates, which ToI cited as having been issued during this two-month period. That makes for 10,750 excess death certificates (34,750 minus 24,000), after accounting for normal deaths. These excess deaths let us ascribe fully to Covid.

Thus, on the basis of the TOI report, there were 10,750 Covid deaths in Delhi in the two-month period April-May 2021. This represents an increase of 45 per cent over the normal deaths in Delhi due to Covid, and not 250 per cent as TOI’s report can lead a reader to aver.

The TOI report is thus misleading on at least two counts: one, the data for April-May 2020 seem quite erroneous. Second, it is misleading in suggesting a 250 per cent jump in deaths in Delhi due to Covid during the period concerned; the more accurate figure is 45 per cent.


Delhi’s Covid death bump

Further, even the 45 per cent Covid death bump is a serious overestimation if we consider the complete Covid period instead of looking at only April and May 2021, the most virulent two-month Covid period on record. Here is how:

The figure of officially reported Covid deaths in Delhi from March 12, 2020, to May 31, 2021, is 24,000, i.e. an average of 1,650 Covid deaths per month. Normal deaths during this 14.5 month period on the basis of 12,000 deaths per month would have been 174,000. Delhi’s Covid death bump thus actually works out to 14 per cent, and not 45 per cent.

The very important point this highlights is: considering only extreme periods can distort perspective and convey misimpressions unless the data are very carefully looked at.


Are Delhi’s Covid deaths underreported?

Let’s now consider the number of officially reported Covid deaths in Delhi during the same two-month period, April-May 2021. This number is 13,000, comprising 5,000 deaths in April 2021 and 8,000 deaths in May 2021 (all numbers are rounded-off to the nearest thousand).

As we saw above, the number of Covid deaths in Delhi in April and May 2021 on the basis of death certificates reported by TOI comes to 10,750. This figure is actually less than the number of 13,000 officially reported Covid deaths.

This would imply that the officially reported figures are actually an overestimate, not an underestimate! What gives? The only reasonable conclusion is that the death certificate data cited in TOI’s report is as yet unreliable, and is of little use in determining either the veracity or the extent of any under-reporting.

Let’s consider some alternative scenarios:

Giving credence to the reasonable point made in the TOI report that death certificates become available only with a lag, let’s factor in a 15-day lag. In other words, we assume that death certificates pertaining to Covid deaths from May 16 to May 31 remained pending and need to be added to the figure of 10,750 certificates we’ve ascribed to Covid deaths.

Accordingly, we add the number of reported deaths in the second half of May, i.e, 3,331, to 10,750. This gives us a rounded-off estimate of 14,000 Covid deaths in Delhi during April-May 2021. The officially reported Covid death figure for the period is 13,000, suggesting an under-reporting of 8 per cent. That’s quite insignificant.

Going a step further, let’s assume the lag in issuance of death certificates to be of one month instead of 15 days. In that case, we would need to add the total number of Covid deaths in May to the figure of 10,750. The resultant number is 18,750 Covid deaths, as against the officially reported number of 13,000. This would imply an underestimation of 45 per cent.

So, we have come up 3 scenarios: one of over-reporting vis-à-vis actual deaths, the second of insignificant underreporting, and a third one of significant underestimation or underreporting. What might this mean?

Undoubtedly, a comparison of settled and complete death certificate data of the Covid period with the pre-Covid averages and trends will finally be an important method of determining the extent of under-estimation or under-reporting. TOI has attempted to do such an exercise but the data for the selected period are not final yet. Till the reliable data become available, it’s more of an open season: one can let fly whatever narratives of underestimation and underreporting that one wishes to in accordance with anecdotal accounts, one’s own impressions, or one’s politics. Take your pick.

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