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HomeCOVID-19Why the media hysteria over Covid in India?

Why the media hysteria over Covid in India?

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I FINALLY got my hair cut on Friday. Afterwards, I visited a coffee shop which was functioning as a takeaway because, unlike the barber’s, it is still far too dangerous to set foot inside a cafe. Anyway, while I waited in an awkward, triangular queue on the roadside, I overheard a fellow customer say to another: ‘It’s terrible what’s happening with Covid in India, isn’t it?’

Clearly, the customer was referring to the news footage beamed into our ‘safe’ living rooms of breathless patients dying in overwhelmed hospitals. Of course it’s terrible, and if Britain can do anything to alleviate the suffering there it should. But why is there such a fixation on India, of all the countries in the world that have been hit by Covid19? Is the situation unprecedented enough to be described as a ‘catastrophe’, as Scottish despot Nicola Sturgeon did in a tweet vilifying anti-lockdown protesters?

The short answer is no, and India is being singled out. A week earlier, when Brazil was in the spotlight, the same customer in the same queue discussing the same subject would likely have said: ‘It’s terrible what’s going on in Brazil, isn’t it?’

It’s wise to be sceptical when faced with emotive journalism that expects readers and viewers to take what they see at face value. Images from Italy last March of coffins piling up in churches and being transported by military vehicles through abandoned cities sent the world into hysterics. It looked like something out of the pandemic thriller Contagion, but the reality was a lot less scary, if more infuriating. The disturbing scenes were simply the result of the Italian government’s decision to ban funerals, but the facts were redundant at this stage.

The global alarm in spring 2020 was boosted when aerial footage of the Hart Island public graveyard in New York City was lapped up as a ‘mass grave’ by many major broadcasters in the UK and US. It remains true that the graveyard was much busier than normal, but the whole truth was less scary, if much sadder. The site had been used by the city since 1869 as a burial place for deceased individuals who were either unclaimed or whose families didn’t plan funerals for them, and the increase in bodies arriving at Hart Island was largely due to a change in New York’s storage policy, which shortened the maximum amount of time a medical examiner could keep a body in storage.

Of course, Italy and New York (especially New York) were hit hard by Covid and alas, some hospitals were overwhelmed. But hospitals being overwhelmed, though awful and unacceptable, is known to happen (more on that later).

The British media, keen to show us cremations but reluctant to show us context, seems to decide what concerns people. It also decides what the public doesn’t know about that perhaps they should know about. This is proved by the simple fact that Hungary, not India, currently has the highest Covid-19 death rate globally, yet there is no panic or particular concern about Hungary on the airwaves.

The severity of the situation in India is being measured not in excess deaths, but the number of official Covid deaths, largely exacerbated by a shortage of oxygen supplies, a technical issue. It is of course possible that India’s true death toll may be higher. But if we stick to the official numbers that all major news outlets are repeating, then India’s Covid death rate is not even among the worst 100 countries globally. Currently, their death rate ranks only 22nd worst in Asia, lower than in countries such as the Philippines, whose psychopathic leader called for lockdown flouters to be shot, but higher than Japan, which never put its citizens under house arrest at any point during the pandemic, even during their declared ‘state of emergency’.

It’s worth highlighting that India is a young nation and the average life expectancy there is 69.4 years. Eighty-eight per cent of India’s Covid deaths are in the age group of 45 and above. When The Times of India examined 125 people who died from Covid in New Delhi, it found that the average age of death was 60, and that of the cases examined, 35 per cent had one pre-existing condition, 40 per cent had two, and 17 per cent had more than three. The German data company Statista states that the age group between 60 and 74 years had the highest share of Covid deaths, in line with findings from other countries.

The most recent figures show that India suffered an increase of roughly 2,800 new Covid deaths in the space of 24 hours, while Hungary has seen an increase of roughly 205 new Covid deaths in the same timespan. Yesterday’s figure for India was their highest daily death toll recorded so far, while Hungary’s deadliest day in Covid so far, April 7, saw 311 Covid deaths.

But, since the mainstream stations forget to remind viewers, India has a population of almost 1.4billion, while Hungary’s is just under 9.8million people (2019 estimate). In fact, given India’s vast population (not to mention extreme poverty), it’s remarkable how low their recent daily death tolls are compared with the rest of the world, even if we assume there is a problem with undercounting. The death rate, i.e. the number of deaths per million, is a more reliable measure of how bad the situation in a country truly is than a crude death toll without context.

If we are generous to the catastrophists and act as if India’s population hasn’t risen considerably in the last two years (which would make any death toll appear to claim a higher percentage of the population then it actually has, and might compensate for any Covid deaths that may not be accounted for), and even more generously assume that every one of these officially labelled Covid deaths was directly caused by Covid, not heart disease, old age, road collisions or gunshot wounds, then roughly 0.0002 per cent of India’s population was lost to Covid on Sunday. But Hungary’s 205 new Covid deaths account for 0.002 per cent of their population, meaning April 25 was proportionally a deadlier day for Hungary than it was for India.

The latest number from India is roughly the equivalent of 120 Covid deaths in a day in England and Wales, which would not be regarded as a particularly grim milestone even by the doom-mongers in Whitehall and Fleet Street.

John Burn Murdoch, a senior data-visualization journalist at the Financial Times, stated recently that ‘overall, numbers of Covid victims who have been cremated are 10x larger than official Covid death counts in same areas’.

Let’s be generous and assume that India’s real Covid death toll is ten times the official number, and therefore two million. Two million Covid deaths, divided by 1.4 billion people, would be 0.14 per cent of India’s population lost to the pandemic (0.15 if divided by 1.366 billion, India’s estimated 2019 population). The Hungarian death toll, which may be an underestimate, stands at 27,358, which is 0.28 per cent of Hungary’s 9.8 million people. The current death toll in Peru, (which is strongly suspected to be a vast underestimate since Peru has by far the highest excess death rate in the world) stands at 61,101. Divide that by Peru’s 32.5million people, and it equates to 0.18 per cent of their population lost to Covid.

So even if the true figure for India were ten times higher than reported, Covid’s toll on India would still be proportionally less catastrophic than it is in many countries which we hear so little about.*

In the UK, the highest number of Covid deaths recorded in a single day was 1,820 on January 20, which is roughly 0.003 per cent of the UK population (2019 estimate), a larger percentage of the British population than Hungary and India lost in any of the last seven days. And yes, Britain was in a state of grave panic at the time, enhanced by the Johnson government’s ‘Look them in the eyes’ campaign.

So now that we have established that Britain recently endured Covid mortality rates worse than what India is going through now, it’s time to ask how scared we ought to have been at the time of the second wave. If we can figure that out, then we can work out whether the frantic coverage of India is justified or alarmist.

Britain’s ‘deadliest day of the pandemic’ happened in the week ending January 22, in which a total of 18,676 people died from all causes in England and Wales, roughly 0.03 per cent of the population of England and Wales. (I will now refer just to the population of England and Wales according to the ONS, not the estimated population of the entire United Kingdom in 2019).

The 18,676 deaths that occurred that week made it one of the highest tolls since the ONS began recording weekly deaths in 1993. But, importantly, it was a smaller total than the 20,566 deaths recorded in the week ending on January 7, 2000, when there was a bad flu outbreak, and the 20,116 people who died a year before in the week ending on January 8, 1999, again during a bad flu season. When you adjust the population of England and Wales, which has risen by more than 7.6million since 2000, the weekly all-cause death toll in the third week of this year was even smaller.

In 1999, 20,116 deaths were roughly 0.04 per cent of the population, as were 20,566 deaths in January 2000. The 22,351 people who died in the deadliest week of last year, ending April 17, 2020, also comprised 0.04 per cent of people in England and Wales, making the total mortality peaks of the first and second waves of the pandemic slightly less deadly than the first weeks of January 1999 and January 2000.

To cut a long story short, the British people dutifully cowered at home when Covid did its worst in April 2020 and January 2021, but not during the 1999/2000 influenza outbreak, when the country experienced mortality levels that were slightly proportionally worse than what we faced in the last year. The foolishly abandoned UK Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Strategy 2011 even noted the severity of the 1999/2000 outbreak, and pointed out that in spite of it, ‘day-to-day life for most people continued largely unaffected’.

Interestingly, a BBC special report from January 11, 1999 called ‘The crises of winters future‘ describes the 1998/1999 flu crisis, which at its peak was slightly worse than each wave of the Covid crisis, as ‘nowhere near pandemic levels’. The report also mentions the recognised global pandemics of 1918, 1957, and 1968, the latter two of which caused little disruption in day-to-day life.

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, England and Wales experienced lower overall mortality than they did during a relatively recent outbreak that didn’t qualify as a pandemic. Lockdown supporters assert that excess mortality would have been much higher had it not been for lockdown, but there is no evidence for this. Sweden (or should I say nature) flattened its curve at a similar rate to us without putting its citizens under house arrest or forcing its small businesses to close. Not only that, but their excess mortality has been lower than so many of the European countries that simultaneously locked down, such as Belgium, Spain, the Czech Republic, and of course, Britain, not to mention Hungary.

Coming back to India, admittedly we do not yet know the total number of deaths. But since the media so cynically broadcasts footage of overwhelmed hospitals, morgues, and crematoriums, prompting condemnation against those of us who ‘cry freedom‘ from celebrities such as Sue Perkins, it is worth mentioning what the flu outbreaks at the end of the last millennium did to our NHS, while life for most people, including Sue Perkins, continued ‘largely unaffected’.

One BBC article from January 8, 2000, describes overflowing mortuaries as a ‘body jam’. It says: ‘Last winter Norfolk and Norwich Hospital sparked outrage when it drafted in a refrigerated lorry to cope with a “body jam” as unprecedented demand was piled on its mortuary.

‘This year, largely without comment, the lorries have returned in numbers, with bodies being piled into trailers parked outside Eastbourne District General Hospital and Hastings Conquest Hospital in East Sussex.’

Another BBC article from the previous year reports that ‘as few as 20 intensive care beds across the whole of England were available’ as the NHS struggles to ‘cope’, mentioning the storage lorries being used as temporary mortuaries.

There is a lot of finger-pointing and political point-scoring in these valuable historical documents, but no one appears to consider mass house arrest or even mandatory mask-wearing.

The media’s Covid catastrophism just doesn’t add up. Even the recent, sensationalist coverage of Brazil was less insulting to the intelligence than their exploitation of the sad scenes in India.

Yes, Nicola Sturgeon, we already know that Covid is not a hoax, it is very real, and it does kill people. No, Nicola Sturgeon, it does not justify the grotesque, absurd, and very dangerous measures you and your dud equivalents around the world have inflicted on your citizens.

Enough is enough.

This article first appeared in the Harry Dougherty Blog on April 27, 2021, and is republished by kind permission.

•This article was updated on April 30th 2021

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Harry Dougherty
Harry Dougherty is a journalist and writer.

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