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India lacks an authoritative estimate of the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic. We report excess mortality estimates from three different data sources from the pandemic’s start through June 2021. First, extrapolation of state-level civil registration from seven states suggests 3.4 million excess deaths. Second, applying international estimates of age-specific infection fatality rates (IFR) to Indian seroprevalence data implies a higher toll of around 4 million. Third, our analysis of the Consumer Pyramid Household Survey, a longitudinal panel of over 800,000 individuals across all states, yields an estimate of 4.9 million excess deaths. Each of these estimates has shortcomings and they also diverge in the pattern of deaths between the two waves of the pandemic. Estimating COVID-deaths with statistical confidence may prove elusive. But all estimates suggest that the death toll from the pandemic is likely to be an order of magnitude greater than the official count of 400,000; they also suggest that the first wave was more lethal than is believed. Understanding and engaging with the data-based estimates is necessary because in this horrific tragedy the counting—and the attendant accountability—will count for now but also the future.
We provide code and workbooks to replicate all our calculations here.