The Curious Case of the Deaths That Weren't Due to COVID-19

Indian government agencies have often deployed syntactic tricks to hide the true scale of infectious diseases. COVID-19 is no exception.

Last week, India’s Union health ministry published two press releases about COVID-19 that raised many eyebrows. The first was about the death of a 76-year-old man who later tested positive for COVID-19. He had recently visited Saudi Arabia, fell ill upon return and eventually succumbed. However, the press release used strange phrasing to announce this. It said the man was “confirmed to have died due to a co-morbidity”. When a person has more than one illness at the same time, they’re called comorbidities. The man had a history of asthma and hypertension.

Another press release issued the next day, about the death of a 68-year-old woman from Delhi who had COVID-19, repeated the language. She had likely contracted the virus from her son, and suffered from diabetes and hypertension. Again, the press release claimed her death was “confirmed to be due to a co-morbidity”.

Both statements imply that the two people – the first two Indians to succumb to COVID-19 – died not because of the novel coronavirus that is driving a global pandemic but because of the other illnesses they already had. In a press conference on March 13, the health ministry’s joint health secretary Lav Agarwal drove this point home, telling reporters they should “appreciate” that the two who had died had comorbidities. He was clearly implying that deaths such as theirs were rare in the ongoing epidemics, and not the norm.

This language is problematic for multiple reasons.

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Priyanka Pulla is a science writer.