Parts of India have recorded dramatic falls in mortality rates after a nationwide lockdown was imposed to fight the new coronavirus, suggesting there has not been an undetected surge in virus-related deaths.
All over the world, mortality rates are being scrutinised to determine the true impact of the coronavirus, which emerged in China late last year and is known to have infected more than 2.7 million people globally, with nearly 190,000 deaths.
While death rates in some countries have risen sharply in recent weeks, in India the opposite seems to be happening, at least in some places, leaving hospitals, funeral parlours, and cremation sites wondering what is going on.
“It’s very surprising for us,” said Shruthi Reddy, chief executive officer of Anthyesti Funeral Services, which operates in the eastern city of Kolkata and the southern tech hub of Bengaluru.
The company handled about five jobs a day in January but has only had about three a day this month.
“We’ve declared employee pay cuts if revenue falls below a threshold,” Reddy said.
Other numbers tell a similar story.
Central Mumbai, home to some 12 million people, saw deaths fall by about 21% in March compared with the same month of 2019, according to municipal data.
Overall deaths plummeted 67% in Ahmedabad, the biggest city in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, over the same period.
Data from at least two other cities, along with accounts from state health officials, show a similar pattern. Half a dozen funeral businesses and crematoriums also reported slumps in business, especially in April.
“If we’re not seeing an increase in deaths, the suspicion that there may be more COVID-19 fatalities out there is not true,” said Giridhar Babu, professor of epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India.
Modi imposed a lockdown of India’s 1.3 billion people on March 25 in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected some 23,077 people, killing 718 of them, according to the latest figures.
India has tested about 525,000 people, meaning some 4% were positive. In the United States, about 18% of tests are positive, according to the COVID Tracking project.
India’s apparently lower death rates stand in contrast to what has been seen elsewhere.
The Netherlands recorded about 2,000 more deaths than normal in the first week of April, for example, while in Indonesia’s capital of Jakarta the number of funerals rose sharply in March.
Some towns in Italy also saw a jump in recorded deaths.
Indian doctors, officials, and crematorium employees suspect the lower death rate is in large part attributable to fewer road and rail accidents.