Can we believe the officially reported number of Covid-19 deaths in Bangladesh?

As the number of projected and officially reported deaths increasingly diverge, it is worth asking if politics is trumping a proper count.

Can we believe the officially reported number of Covid-19 deaths in Bangladesh?

Today, April 13th, there are 39 reported Covid-19 deaths in Bangladesh, 5 more than yesterday.

Two weeks ago, Netra News reported on an epidemiological projection about the possible impact of the Covid-19 epidemic in Bangladesh. This not yet peer-reviewed projection was prepared by a group of public health researchers from Brac University, North South University and Johns Hopkins University, using a model developed by Imperial College London’s Covid-19 Response Team, which analysed the situation in the United Kingdom and the United States.

The researchers based their projections on a non-intervention scenario, assuming the Bangladesh government took no action to suppress and mitigate the spread of the virus. They included a day by day projection on the likely number of Covid-19 deaths. On the basis that the first reported death in Bangladesh was on March 18th, they calculated that the epidemic in Bangladesh started with the entry of a primary case on February 2nd 2020.

As noted in the table below, from March 18th until March 30th, the officially reported number of Covid-19 deaths in Bangladesh was either the same or higher than the number of projected deaths.

However since March 30th, the actual number of reported deaths has been lower than the projected number.

The researchers’ epidemiological projections had predicted that Bangladesh would reach the current number of 39 deaths on April 9th, four days sooner. According to their projections, on April 9th, there would be 83 deaths, slightly over double the current reported number.

The difference between the officially reported number of deaths and the projected number of deaths is illustrated in the following chart.

The difference between the officially reported and projected numbers could mean that the projections were inaccurate in the first place — though, one should note that the United Nations, in its internal briefing, reported on a similarly high number of projected deaths in Bangladesh.

There are two other possible conclusions from the divergence. Either that is good news, suggesting that the social isolation measures imposed by the government are working, or some other factor is intervening to reduce the infection rate. Or, the divergence reflects that the total number of actual Covid-19 deaths are not being properly counted. There are news reports suggesting that a significant number of deaths from respiratory diseases across Bangladesh may well have been Covid-19 cases, but these could not be included in the official statistics because of a lack of testing.

The following table presents what the researchers projected would be the number of deaths, day by day, until the end of April.

Based on these divergent figures, it is worth asking, to what extent is politics getting, and will continue to get, in the way of allowing a proper counting of the number of Covid-19 deaths in Bangladesh?

Arguably, the Bangladesh government perceives that it is not in their political interest for there to be high numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths. In democracies, it is difficult to hide the real numbers, but in authoritarian countries like Bangladesh — where there is strong executive control over every institution, where civil servants are scared to say anything out of line, and where legitimate news reports and analysis on the Covid-19 epidemic are being censored — the government is very much able to do so. It can do this by not testing all those suffering from Covid-19 symptoms as well as those who may have died from Covid-19, or alternatively by not providing accurate information on the outcome of the tests.

Right now, it remains unclear whether the political interests of the Awami League government have trumped the proper processing of the number of Covid-19 deaths. What is more certain is that if in the weeks ahead the actual number of people dying from the disease does move closer to the projected number of deaths, it will get harder and harder for the government to hide that reality by manipulating the official figures.●

David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.

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