COVID-19 deaths in India: Local news media uncovers scale of crisis, challenges official data

·8 min read

When the pandemic's second wave swept India in mid-April, Deepak Patel, an aviation reporter for the Press Trust of India in New Delhi, noticed something odd. Whenever he perused the local papers from his home state of Gujarat€"Divya Bhaskar, Gujarat Samachar, and Sandesh€"reports about COVID-19 cases, and the obituaries that filled the pages, didn't match the government statistics on cases and deaths.

Patel began tallying the numbers and posting his findings on Twitter each day. On 26 April, he pointed out that in Sandesh's Rajkot edition (different cities have their own editions), seven out of eighteen pages contained only obituaries€"a total of 287 deaths€"while official figures recorded just 26. On 6 May, Patel tweeted a picture of Sandesh's front page, with the translation: "17,822 bodies were cremated or buried as per COVID-19 protocol in 7 major cities of Gujarat in last 1 month€¦But Gujarat govt's data says only 1,745 people died of Covid in these 7 cities in last 1 month: Sandesh."

India's official count of COVID-19 cases has surpassed 20 million, with more than 300,000 infections and 4,000 deaths reported daily for the past three weeks. Yet many experts believe the situation on the ground is far worse than what official statistics indicate. Reporters like Patel, and international outlets including the Washington Post and Financial Times, have turned to local papers in order to consolidate their own data on overlooked or downplayed COVID-19 fatalities during the country's second wave, relying on local journalists in the field, who line up outside hospitals and cremation grounds every day to count the bodies.

The western state of Gujarat, which is also the birthplace of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has officially registered nearly 700,000 cases and 8,500 deaths, but undercounting is purported to be massive here, more than in any other state. The local media usually toes the government line and refrains from strong political commentary, but the pandemic is one of the rare and compelling instances where editors feel they cannot turn a blind eye on the loss and anguish suffered by their readers. In recent months, they have amplified COVID-19 coverage on their front pages, taking an unusually critical stance on the government's records. They publish investigations about fudged data, write bold editorials, and let the tenfold increase in printed obituaries quietly illustrate the scale of the tragedy for readers.

A recent headline on the front page of Gujarat Samachar read: "A gas-based crematorium in Mehsana, Gujarat, has become red-hot due to constant cremations for the last 15 days." Beneath it was an image of a scorched pipe that glowed red from nonstop cremations. The leading Gujarati-language daily, with a 4.6 million€"strong readership, began publishing long before the Partition of India of 1947, and has not historically shied away from eye-popping headlines. Now it reads as even less apologetic, and more accusatory. "The jugglery with statistics just doesn't stop," read one recent headline. "The government continues to indulge in statistical illusions," read another.

Bhaven Kachhi, who has worked at Gujarat Samachar for twenty-nine years, sends reporters to cremation grounds across cities and villages to track the daily arrival of bodies. In the city of Ahmedabad, for example, reporters have watched people arrive at five in the morning to cremate their loved ones, forming lines that continue to grow and move until midnight. Gujarat Samachar isn't trying to target the government, Kachhi says. "We are at a point now where if we didn't report the truth, people would still know the full extent just from looking at their own neighborhoods."

Parul Ahir, who has been reporting on the pandemic for Khabar Gujarat, an online regional news outlet in the city of Jamnagar, says that hospital administrators and public officials often tell her there are five to ten COVID deaths on any given day but also acknowledge the numbers don't include cases with comorbidities. So the twenty-four-year-old speaks to families inside hospital wards and counts names on the lists posted at cremation grounds, which gives Khabar Gujarat "a completely different picture to what the government is saying," Ahir says. "You can tell something is fishy."

While local reporting has driven international media coverage on statistical discrepancies, some local editors feel the focus on the death toll is too narrow to capture the full plight. Sandesh, a daily that often takes a pro-establishment stance, has published several critical stories on the pandemic, from officials undercounting deaths to frontline workers who have contracted the virus or lost family members while on their shifts. "We are proud of our coverage, but at the end of the day, there is also sorrow," Parthiv Patel, the managing director of Sandesh, says. "Rather than get into the debate of what the right number is, we just need to focus on lowering that number."

Recently, the Gujarati press has also begun demanding accountability from those in power. When a local leader from the state's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party announced the free distribution of five thousand doses of the antiviral drug remdesivir in the city of Surat, Divya Bhaskar, one of the three dailies, published his phone number as its front-page headline, urging readers to call and ask how he procured the supply in the midst of a statewide shortage. The stunt attracted nationwide attention, and the state government fought back, in a public-interest litigation initiated by Gujarat's High Court. It argued that the media reports were biased, exaggerated, and sometimes fake. The High Court firmly rejected the claim. Mahesh Langa, who has been reporting on the undercounting of cases for The Hindu, a leading English-language daily, said the court's verdict showed cognizance of the public's anger. "We are dealing with an extraordinary situation, so the court is reflecting the people's will."

Divya Bhaskar is part of the country's largest-selling newspaper group, the Hindi-language Dainik Bhaskar, which has been active in pointing out discrepancies in other states, too. In the city of Bhopal, in Madhya Pradesh, the paper found that three facilities had cremated one hundred twelve COVID victims, while the state reported just four. A shot of a cremation ground dotted with burning pyres at night was splashed across the front page, with a headline that declared, "The government's data is fake, the pyres tell the truth."

For its part, the Indian government has consistently downplayed the severity of the pandemic€"while clamping down on media coverage critical of its handling. Last July, when cases rose, more than fifty journalists were arrested or had police complaints registered against them for spreading false information. The majority were independent journalists working in rural India. In March, when the second wave took hold of the country, the government allowed mass public gatherings like election rallies, religious festivals, and cricket matches to take place. Then it demanded that Twitter block access to tweets that were critical of the administration's response.

Dr. Murad Banaji, a mathematician at Middlesex University in London who has been tracking COVID-19 in India, found that local reports on fatality undercounting have emerged from fifteen different states that make up around 80 percent of India's population. "More than the numbers themselves, you get the context for why these deaths are underreported," he says. Undercounting is common in areas where awareness of the disease is low and access to healthcare is minimal, he says. This, in turn, indicates how deaths are most undercounted among India's marginalized communities. For example, in a local report from a village in Uttar Pradesh, one resident spoke of "mysterious deaths" following fever, cough, and breathing problems. "I am being informed about a death every day in the village. There was no testing, so we don't know what is the cause," said the villager. The lives lost in Gujarat's small towns would likewise be rendered invisible if local news outlets weren't there to account for them.

Banaji believes the relative lack of critical coverage during India's first wave enabled the government to "spin various narratives" about the pandemic€"that the country was in the "endgame," for instance€"which then fed a public complacency around threats and encouraged the second wave. The recent efforts at accountability coverage, however, have seemingly put the government on notice: earlier this month, hundreds of officials from the central government met with a communication consultant brought in to help them create "a positive image" of the government's pandemic response going forward. "If you allow a tragedy to go uncounted, there's no accountability," Banaji says. "You just open the way for every future tragedy."

This story originally appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review.

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