As India's virus cases rise, so do questions over death toll

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Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

Anindita Mitra, 61, flanked by her sons Satyajit Mitra, right and Abhijit Mitra, pose with portraits of her husband late Narayan Mitra, at her house in Silchar, India, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020. Narayan Mitra, wasn't listed among those killed by the coronavirus that authorities put out daily because the test results confirming COVID-19 arrived after his death. In India, people who die with other preexisting conditions are often not counted as COVID-19 deaths, while only those who test positive for the virus before dying are included in the official tally in many states. (AP Photo/Joy Roy)

NEW DELHI – When Narayan Mitra died on July 16, a day after being admitted to the hospital for fever and breathing difficulties, his name never appeared on any of the official lists put out daily of those killed by the coronavirus.

Test results later revealed that Mitra had indeed been infected with COVID-19, as had his son, Abhijit, and four other family members in Silchar, in northeastern Assam state, on India's border with Bangladesh.

But Narayan Mitra still isn't counted as a coronavirus victim. The virus was deemed an “incidental” factor, and a panel of doctors decided his death was due to a previously diagnosed neurological disorder that causes muscle weakness.

“He died because of the virus, and there is no point lying about it,” Abhijit Mitra said of the finding, which came despite national guidelines that ask states to not attribute deaths to underlying conditions in cases where COVID-19 has been confirmed by tests.

Such exclusions could explain why India, which has recorded more than 5.1 million infections — second only to the United States — has a death toll of about 83,000 in a country of 1.3 billion people.

India's Health Ministry has cited this as evidence of its success in fighting the pandemic and a basis for relaxing restrictions and reopening the economy after Prime Minister Narendra Modi ordered a strict lockdown of the entire population earlier this year.

But experts say the numbers are misleading and that India is not counting many deaths.

“We are undercounting deaths by an unknown factor,” said Dr. T. Jacob John, a retired virologist.