Suicides increase 10% to highest since 1967, accidental deaths down 11%: National data
Among those who died by suicide, students and small entrepreneurs saw the biggest jump, supporting anecdotal accounts of stress
How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect accidental deaths and suicides in India? The 2020 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) report released on October 28 confirms intuitive wisdom on this question. While the number of road accidents and associated deaths fell sharply, suicides saw a large increase. Among those who died by suicide, students and small entrepreneurs saw the biggest jump, supporting anecdotal accounts of the pandemic’s disproportionate stress on them.
The annual Accidental Deaths and Suicides (ADSI) report, which is released by the NCRB (it works under the ministry of home affairs) is the official source of statistics on the number of accidents and deaths by accident or suicides in India.
4th highest annual spike in suicide deaths in 2020
The 2020 report; it covers the period from January to December 2020, shows that there was a sharp rise in the number of deaths by suicides. In absolute terms, there were 153,052 deaths by suicides, the highest number since 1967; the earliest period for which data is available. This number increased by 10% from 2019 -- the year-on-year jump is the fourth highest since 1967. To be sure, as a share of population, rate of such deaths is not unprecedented. The number of deaths by suicide, when adjusted by per lakh population, was 11.3 in 2020. While, this is the highest rate in the last 10 years, it was 11.4 in 2010.
Did lockdown stress play a role in rise in suicides?
The answer seems to be yes, when one looks at the statistics for students and professionals. One of the biggest collateral damages of the pandemic has been education as schools and colleges did not open even after the 68-day long hard lockdown that began in March had ended.
A report released by the ministry of education, reported by HT on October 7, found that 29 million students did not have access to digital devices in India. There have been several reports of students dying by suicide because of inability to access resources to continue their education online.
The ADSI report shows that these were not just anecdotal accounts. Students, who make up 7%-8% of deaths by suicide every year, registered a 21.2% increase in such deaths in 2020, the highest among people of different broad occupations, followed by professionals or salaried persons (16.5%), and daily wage earners (15.7%).
The report also shows that small businessmen suffered more than salaried professionals. Deaths by suicide of vendors and tradesmen increased by 26.1% and 49.9% respectively. To be sure, vendors and tradesmen are a sub-category of self-employed persons, who have as a whole registered only a 7.8% increase.
All these numbers suggest that hardships in continuing education and financial losses because of the pandemic extracted a huge cost in India.
A cause-wise analysis of deaths by suicides supports such a conclusion.
Among causes of suicide that make up at least a percent of such deaths, poverty (69%) and unemployment (24%) registered the biggest increase. Drug abuse or alcohol addiction (17%), illness (16%), and family problems (14%) come next. Although students have registered an increase in deaths by suicide it was likely related to relatively longer-term prospects (perhaps inability to continue education) than exams. Deaths by suicide due to failure in examination declined by 24% but due to professional/career problem increased by 11%.
But the curbs brought down accidental deaths
Images of deserted roads and city spaces went viral during the 68-day long lockdown. This also led to a sharp fall in number of road accidents and related deaths.
According to the ADSI report, accidental deaths, of which traffic accidents are about 40%, declined by 11%, in 2020. There were 374,397 accidental deaths in 2020. This is the lowest number since 2009 when the number of such deaths was 357,021.
Compared to 2019, such deaths declined by 11.1%. Only twice has year-on-year growth rate been more negative since 1967: in 1971 and 1974.
While the number of deaths due to natural causes also declined by 9.1%, the lockdown’s impact was different on different heads. While the number of deaths due to sunstroke fell by 744 between 2019 and 2020 – the lockdown was imposed in peak summer – deaths by floods actually increased from 948 to 959. Drowning, sudden deaths, and poisoning were the only big non-natural causes of accidental deaths where there was an increase in 2020 compared to 2019.
The NCRB had released the 2020 Crime in India report in the month of September, which showed a big jump in number of crimes, largely on account of people being charged for violating Covid-19 guidelines.