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As Covid-19 Devastates India, Deaths Go Undercounted


Fatalities have been overlooked or downplayed, understating the human toll of the country’s outbreak, which accounts for nearly half of all new cases in a global surge.

NEW DELHI — India’s coronavirus second wave is rapidly sliding into a devastating crisis, with hospitals unbearably full, oxygen supplies running low, desperate people dying in line waiting to see doctors — and mounting evidence that the actual death toll is far higher than officially reported.

Each day, the government reports more than 300,000 new infections, a world record, and India is now seeing more new infections than any other country by far, almost half of all new cases in a global surge.

But experts say those numbers, however staggering, represent just a fraction of the real reach of the virus’s spread, which has thrown this country into emergency mode. Millions of people refuse to even step outside — their fear of catching the virus is that extreme. Accounts from around the country tell of the sick being left to gasp for air as they wait at chaotic hospitals that are running out of lifesaving oxygen.

The sudden surge in recent weeks, with an insidious newer variant possibly playing a role, is casting increasing doubt on India’s official Covid-19 death toll of nearly 200,000, with more than 2,000 people dying every day.

Interviews from cremation grounds across the country, where the fires never stop, portray an extensive pattern of deaths far exceeding the official figures. Nervous politicians and hospital administrators may be undercounting or overlooking large numbers of dead, analysts say. And grieving families may be hiding Covid connections as well, out of shame, adding to the confusion in this enormous nation of 1.4 billion.

“It’s a complete massacre of data,” said Bhramar Mukherjee, an epidemiologist at the University of Michigan who has been following India closely. “From all the modeling we’ve done, we believe the true number of deaths is two to five times what is being reported.”

At one of the large cremation grounds in Ahmedabad, a city in the western Indian state of Gujarat, bright orange fires light up the night sky, burning 24 hours a day, like an industrial plant that never shuts down. Suresh Bhai, a worker there, said he had never seen such a never-ending assembly line of death.

But he has not been writing down the cause of death as Covid-19 on the thin paper slips that he hands over to the mournful families, even though the number of dead is surging along with the virus.

“Sickness, sickness, sickness,” Mr. Suresh said. “That’s what we write.”

When asked why, he said it was what he had been instructed to do by his bosses, who did not respond to requests for comment.

On Saturday, officials reported nearly 350,000 new infections, and the deaths continued to rise. At one hospital in New Delhi, the capital, doctors said 20 patients in a critical care unit had died after oxygen pressure dropped. The doctors blamed the deaths on the city’s acute oxygen shortage.

Months ago, India seemed to be doing remarkably well with the pandemic. After a harsh initial lockdown early last year was eased, the country did not register the frightening case-count and death numbers that sent other big countries into crisis mode. Many officials and ordinary citizens stopped taking precautions, acting as if the worst days were over.

Now, countless Indians are turning to social media to send out heartbreaking S.O.S. messages for a hospital bed, medicine, some oxygen to breathe. “‘National Emergency,’” blared a banner headline in one of India’s leading papers, The Hindustan Times. Across India, mass cremations are now taking place. Sometimes dozens of fires go up at once.

At the same time, India’s Covid vaccine campaign is struggling: Less than 10 percent of Indians have gotten even one dose, despite India being the world’s leading vaccine manufacturer. India’s dire needs are already having ripple effects across the world,…



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