Covid Fatalities: Did Pakistan And Bangladesh Really Do Better Than India? Think Again

Covid Fatalities: Did Pakistan And Bangladesh Really Do Better Than India? Think AgainUndercounting of Covid numbers. (Representative Image)
Snapshot
  • The unadjusted raw data, from Worldometers, clearly shows that both Pakistan and Bangladesh have done much better than India on Covid, especially fatalities.

    But here's what is wrong with this picture.

One of the things critics of India’s Covid management have pointed out is the sharp difference between how our two neighbours — Pakistan and Bangladesh — have done much better. Throughout May, former chief economic adviser Kaushik Basu, an out-and-out Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hater, has been busy tweeting how India has fared poorly on Covid, vaccinations and economic growth.

On 21 May, Basu tweeted: “Latest data on health & economy, Asia. May 21. It's baffling to find India at the virtual bottom of the chart, given that it's one of the world's biggest vaccine producers & till 6 years ago it was one of the world's fastest growing economies.”

The tweet was accompanied by a chart showing India with an 8 per cent negative growth rate (this was before the latest estimates of GDP came out on 31 May, showing the fall in fiscal 2020-21 at -7.3 per cent), and a death rate that was the worst in Asia.

Another Twitter user, Aman Wadud from Guwahati, whose profile says he is a lawyer and Fulbright Fellow, had this to say in a tweet: “Population density of Bangladesh is more than 1,100 per square km, more than twice of India. Bangladesh still has less than half Covid deaths (per million) in comparison to India... how exactly did they do this?”

It is a premature question to ask, for the assumption that Pakistan and Bangladesh did better may not be fully valid. In this piece, I would like to compare only the Covid death rates in the Indian sub-continent, which means basically India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

As on 4 June, India had 28.57 million confirmed cases, 340,719 deaths, and a death rate of 245 per million population.

The comparable figures for Pakistan were 928,588 confirmed cases, 21,105 deaths and 94 deaths per million.

For Bangladesh, the comparable figures, respectively, were 805,980 cases, 12,724 deaths, and 77 deaths per million.

The unadjusted raw data, from Worldometers, clearly shows that both Pakistan and Bangladesh have done much better than India on Covid, especially fatalities.

But what is wrong with this picture?

Answer: it leaves out a crucial variable, the number of tests per million population. The world over, the higher the testing, the higher the likelihood of discovering Covid infections, which then impacts the reportage of deaths due to Covid.

Now let’s add testing rates per million, and here India comes out on top. Worldometers data shows that India has tested 256,686 people per million population — roughly one in four people — compared to Pakistan’s 59,693 and Bangladesh’s low 36,119 per million. This means India tested 4.3 times more people than Pakistan, and a whopping 7.1 times that of Bangladesh.

If we adjust death rates against testing rates, both Pakistan and Bangladesh would come up not looking all that good. If we multiply Pakistan’s 94 deaths by 4.3 (the multiple by which India tested more), we would get 404 deaths per million; in Bangladesh’s case, deaths per million would come to 547 per million. Both worse than India’s performance.

However, this might overstate the case for India, for lower testing does not mean a proportionate decrease in infections or death counts per million. One can say that people (and governments) test less when the apparent level of infections seems lower. They may also test less if their testing facilities are not upto scratch, as was the case with India last year.

If we were to take an admittedly arbitrary lower multiple of 2.5 and 3.5 for Pakistan and Bangladesh, we get a deaths-per-million estimate of 235 for the former and 269 for the latter. India’s stands at 245.

For three countries that are genetically and historically not too different from one another except for the religious factor, numbers of 235, 245 and 269 are more believable than what the actual Covid mortality count shows. Undercounts in Pakistan and Bangladesh may be higher than in India, but only independent studies can prove this. But one thing is probable: we did not do significantly worse than our neighbours from pre-partition India.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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