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India’s COVID Con

The pandemic should not become just one more example of the Indian government’s obsessive desire to control its image. As the recent spat with the World Health Organization over COVID-19 mortality figures suggests, clumsy attempts to influence the global narrative will only undermine India’s international reputation.

NEW DELHI – India is no stranger to political controversies. At least a half-dozen rage in its fractious public life at any time. But perhaps the most unseemly dispute recently has been the current one over the country’s COVID-19 mortality figures.

The pandemic hit India hard, particularly during the second wave in April-June 2021, when people were dying from COVID-19 in hospital waiting rooms and parking lots, while others succumbed due to a lack of medical oxygen. Countless funeral pyres glowed in the darkness along the banks of the Ganges, even as some poor families, unable to afford a funeral, wrapped their loved ones in shrouds and sent them floating down the river.

But, despite widespread anecdotal evidence of a catastrophic pandemic death toll, official Indian figures told a different, although still alarming, story. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government estimated that, between the start of the pandemic in January 2020 and March 2022, just over a half-million deaths were attributable to COVID-19. Many Indian journalists were skeptical, pointing out that the official figure was well below even the number of compensation payouts made by state governments to the families of COVID-19 victims. The respected British medical journal The Lancet published a study suggesting that India’s numbers were a gross undercount. But the government stood its ground.

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