India's death toll jumps on back of Bihar's revised figures: What just happened and will it happen again?
The humanitarian crisis brought on by an unprecedented second wave of COVID-19 infections has, worryingly, dramatically increased India's daily fatality count from the numbers the country was seeing during the first two months of the year. Since March 1, the country has averaged a national daily death toll of 2,000. But the country, on Thursday, reported a staggering 6,148 COVID-19 related deaths, the highest 24-hour count since the onset of the pandemic. Its previous daily death toll peak arrived on May 18 when 4,329 deaths were recorded. So what was so anomalous about the 24-hour period between Wednesday and Thursday this week? The sharp jump recorded on Thursday was borne of a data reconciliation exercise carried out by the state of Bihar. Bihar, on Wednesday, added 3,951 deaths to its cumulative fatality count, many of which were previously unreported. Discounting for Bihar's revised toll, India would have recorded 2,197 total deaths on Thursday. The 3,951 deaths Bihar added took the state's total tally up to 9,429. The state, which prior to the revision on Wednesday was the 17th worst-affected state as far as COVID-19 mortality is concerned, now ranks in 12th position among all states and Union Territories in the country. Additionally, the newly-released figures also dragged Bihar's COVID-19 mortality upwards by roughly 42.1 per cent. Moreover, while the revised death toll didn't do much to affect the national case fatality rate (CFR), it spiked Bihar's by half a percentage point. RELATED NEWS India records highest single-day spike of COVID-19 fatalities as Bihar revises death count Massive discrepancies in Bihar's COVID-19 toll; health department now confirms over 9,000 deaths Bengal reports COVID-19 deaths below 100 for 3rd day, records 5,274 new cases It remains unclear exactly when many of the deaths that Bihar just revealed took place and, it may be possible that they took place last year, and even during the first COVID-19 wave. But Bihar isn't the first state to carry out such data reconciliation exercises. In fact, between May 17 and May 28, the state of Maharashtra added 5,000 additional deaths to its COVID-19 tally over and above its daily fatality count. In total, over that 12-day period, 11,712 deaths were added.A similar spike in deaths was observed in the state on June 16, 2020. The day before saw Maharashtra record 178 deaths, and the day after, 114. But on June 16, 2020, Maharashtra reported 1,409 deaths following a data cleaning exercise. Incidentally, that was the same day that Delhi revealed the results of its own data reconciliation exercise. The 437 deaths recorded on the day represented a nearly six-fold jump from the previous day's tally. On June 17, 2020, though, Delhi recorded just 67 deaths. Such exercises are an ongoing process and it is quite likely that we will see more instances of states revising their death tolls in the days, weeks and months that follow. But what they do point to are vulnerabilities in the Indian healthcare system – more specifically its death registration system – particularly in the country's hinterland. With many deaths going unrecorded for long periods of time or long delays in identifying the cause of death, daily death tolls don't provide an accurate real-time picture of the extent of the devastation COVID-19 is causing. Some experts have also cited failures on the behalf of municipal corporation workers to publish death counts with the kind of regularity needed to gauge COVID-19 mortality accurately and devise more informed strategies and policies.