April 20, 2022
Good morning. In today’s either/view, we debate whether there is merit in India’s objections to WHO’s Covid-19 mortality data. We also look at the poor prosecution rate of the state police department in Karnataka, among other news.
📰 FEATURE STORY
WHO’s Data on Covid Deaths: Mountain or Molehill?
After over a year of hitting the books, records and reports with the accuracy of a laser-cutter, the World Health Organisation (WHO) finally took a breather. Their work was done. The colossal task of tallying the global death toll of the Covid-19 pandemic had been tamed. And the number that came out was far higher than ever anticipated – or at least reported.
Given India’s track record of rejecting Covid death data, the government’s dismissal of the WHO’s numbers is definitely not shocking. But things are different now. The report isn’t simply about India’s data but covers the entire world. And, let’s face it, folks, this is the WHO we’re talking about – the primary health arm of the United Nations.
Considering how difficult it will be for India to disregard these numbers, the government is putting up a stiff fight. And by the looks of it, the WHO has no plans of backing down either.
According to the Indian government, our official Covid related death toll is around 0.52 million. Given our population, i.e. 1.3 billion, this seems like quite the anomaly. For a long time, the government has also been limiting access to mortality data in different states, so the only available number out there is the official count.
Wherever a void in information exists, independent researchers are always there to save the day. Several researchers and organisations took it upon themselves to survey the situation in various states. And every time, the numbers ranged from 5 to 10 times more than that of the official count.
This brings us to the Covid-19 mortality data collected by the WHO. According to their data, by the end of 2021, around 15 million people had perished from Covid-19 across the world. This is more than twice the number reported by the countries independently. India’s numbers allegedly come up to 4 million.
Not only does the collected data cover over a third of the newly added deaths, but it is also the highest mortality number recorded compared to the rest of the world. India found out about this operation as the WHO is obligated to share information with its member states. And the Centre’s first response was to push the publication as much as possible.
The Centre said they did not send any official information to the WHO and even sent over a team of experts to review their data analysis. The WHO says they greeted the team with open arms and encouraged the feedback. What came out was the Centre crying flawed methodology and urging them to publish the report after another decade.
VIEW: Model used is unreliable
Time and again, the Indian government has reiterated its stance on Covid mortality data. Their main argument has been that it isn’t against the results of the reports but the methodology used to get to those conclusions. Right now, considering the WHO’s data hasn’t actually been released yet, the methodology is really all the Centre can go off of.
On Saturday, the Centre released a statement responding to a New York Times report about India’s reaction to the WHO data. It said that they have been in regular contact with the WHO and other member states over inconsistencies in the statistical model used to draw its conclusions. Over several months, the questions raised about this haven’t come from India alone. Other countries like China, Iran, Bangladesh, Syria, Ethiopia and Egypt have brought up their hesitancy in using unofficial data sets in reports that will definitely have quite the impact on their reputation.
A major concern brought up in the statement was the use of a “one size fits all” approach to statistical estimates of different countries. The model, apparently, uses two different sets of excess mortality estimates when the data from Tier-1 countries are used and when the unverified collection from India is used. The Centre says that this variation naturally leads people to question the validity of the exercise.
The WHO’s model also assumes that the monthly average temperature and the average number of deaths that month are inversely related. There are a couple of problems with this. One is that, according to the Centre, there is practically no scientific evidence to establish this connection. The other problem is more India specific. The seasonal conditions of India are far more diverse than in most other countries. Thus, using this data to come up with national level mortality estimates might be counterproductive.
The Centre’s statement also pointed out that the Global Health Estimates (GHE) 2019, the model used for the Covid data, is again simply an estimate. It is based on tracking trends and looking through other sets of “historic” data to draw conclusions about the present. How this method has been used to determine a death tally is still unclear.
COUNTERVIEW: The numbers line up
The WHO and its representatives have gone on record to say that whatever the Indian government has thrown its way, the organisation has welcomed. Dr Samira Asma, the WHO’s assistant director-general for data, said that almost every country had some amount of undercounting. Even in Tier-1 countries like the US several states were reportedly counting deaths at very different rates. Because of this, the organisation has done everything in their power to make sure the report is inclusive and as collaborative as possible.
Professor of statistics and biostatistics at the University of Washington, Jon Wakefield even said that, after India came up with its objections, “we’ve subsequently done all sorts of sensitivity analyses, the paper’s actually a lot better because of this wait, because we’ve gone overboard in terms of model checks and doing as much as we possibly can given the data that’s available.” And considering his role in building the model used in this report, the importance of this delay can be picked up on.
Here’s the thing, calculating deaths on a global scale, especially when several parts of the globe are unwilling to cooperate, is a herculean task. Even when some nations provided data, it was often incomplete or partial. The only way to work around this is to, as Dr Asma put it, “guesstimate” the final count. This is done by making statistically-backed predictions based on country-specific information that ranges from climate, containment procedures, historical disease rates, demographic, etc.
Since this isn’t the ideal way to go about it either, the Technical Advisory Group (TAG), those actually working on the data, make sure to “be humble about it”. The calculation for the final tally used national data, information from local bodies and household surveys, other than the statistical model, to finalise the numbers. This tally will also be the most comprehensive report as the new deaths don’t just include those that were actively caused by the virus, but those that were caused by Covid-related complications as well.
Finally, remember when we mentioned that the Indian government has been dismissing numbers from other researchers as well? Turns out, the numbers here add up. Even though the methodology of all those reports has been questioned by the government, including the ones that largely relied on surveys, everybody can’t be wrong together.
What’s your opinion on this?
(Only subscribers can participate in polls)
a) India’s objections to the WHO’s Covid-19 mortality data are justified.
b) India’s objections to the WHO’s Covid-19 mortality data are not justified.
🕵️ BEYOND ECHO CHAMBERS
For the Right:
Policy watch: Demographics, and weaponising unemployables
For the Left:
Prashant Kishor has a ‘4M’ plan for Congress to take on BJP in 2024. But it needs a Nadda
🏴 STATE OF THE STATES
Government takeover of mining (Punjab) – To tackle illegal mining, the AAP government in the state plans to take over mining operations. It comes as the price of sand has increased to ₹40 per cubic foot, leading to rising costs for the construction industry. The pilot initiative will be at the Ferozepur cluster, where stockpiles will be made available to buyers directly. The move comes in the wake of the government terminating contracts of two clusters and suspending operations of two others for failing to pay contract fees.
Why it matters: According to the Punjab State Sand and Gravel Policy, 2018, 400 lakh metric tonnes of sand and gravel are allowed to be mined every three years. Given the state’s debts, mining is an easy way to raise funds. However, successive governments have failed to keep a check on illegal mining and haven’t exploited the sector’s potential. During the recent assembly polls, illegal sand mining became a hot-button issue.
Poor prosecution rate (Karnataka) – Over the past three years, the state police department has taken action against 935 personnel for lapses. These include non-submission of evidence and allowing witnesses to turn hostile. The cops in question have been denied promotions and increments. It comes as the department began looking into acquittal rates. From January 2019 to February 2022, more than 37,500 have been acquitted.
Why it matters: In September, Home Minister Araga Jnanendra asked the Mysuru police to raise conviction rates as they declined to 37.77% during 2020-21. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) showed the Karnataka police had a conviction rate of 51.2%, while their counterparts registered a higher number. Among the reasons cited is bad investigative practices. The Delhi police had a conviction rate of more than 85%, and Chennai had 66%.
Credit to SHGs (Odisha) – Commercial banks in the state have extended credit of more than ₹5,600 crores to more than 2.6 lakh women self-help groups (SHGs). The government’s target is more than 2.8 lakh SHGs receiving ₹6,002.52 crores. A report by the State Level Bankers Committee (SLBC) showed more than 58,000 loan applications were pending at the bank level. Principal Secretary Finance, Vishal Dev, directed the banks to accelerate their process. He also asked the banks to increase the loan amount to ₹4 lakh per SHG.
Why it matters: The majority of the SHGs aren’t availing the full limit sanctioned by banks as the average loan size is ₹2.14 lakh. Between 2019 and 2021, goods worth ₹2,800 crores were bought from SHGs under Mission Shakti. This scheme has undertaken MoUs with banks to engage women SHGs as banking correspondents.
Leader in renewable energy (Rajasthan) – Rajasthan is leading the way in renewable energy production with an additional 1877 MW of solar power in March. It produced 17040.62 MW till March 22, according to data from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. The state was leading the pack in solar energy but now stands first in overall renewable energy production. The Rajasthan Renewable Energy Corporation earned a record profit of ₹65 crores for the financial year ended March 31, 2022. It’s twice that of the previous years.
Why it matters: Last July, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot said he hopes to make the state a leader in the renewable energy sector. The state implemented the Rajasthan Solar Energy Policy-2019 and Solar-Wind Hybrid Energy Policy-2019. He has set a target of 30,000 MW of solar power and 7,500 MW of wind and hybrid energy production by 2024-25. The state has the potential to generate 2.7 lakh MW of solar and wind energy.
Transgender-run tea stall (Assam) – In a first for the state, a transgender-run tea stall was inaugurated in the compound of the deputy commissioner’s office in Kamrup district. Named ‘Trans Tea Stall’, it was set up under the All-Assam Transgender Association. Swati Bindhan Baruah, the association’s founder, said it’s a small step to help empower the transgender community in the state. The stall is run by two trans members of the association with assistance from two helpers.
Why it matters: The state still doesn’t have a scheme for the betterment of the transgender community’s livelihoods. Per a recent survey, the state has more than 26,000 transgender people. However, they have been at the receiving end of discrimination and abuse. Similar tea stalls are present in Mumbai and Delhi.
🔢 KEY NUMBER
₹3 lakh crores – The amount of debt previous governments in Punjab have accumulated. The AAP said it would look into recovering it and fix accountability.