• Authors: Aashish Gupta, Payal Hathi, Murad Banaji, Prankur Gupta, Ridhi Kashyap, Vipul Paikra, Kanika Sharma, Anmol Somanchi, Nikkil Sudharsanan, and Sangita Vyas
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The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) is uncertain. We are the first to use high-quality empirical data from India, which has a large population and where pandemic surveillance was particularly poor, to examine changes in life expectancy and estimate excess deaths during the pandemic. We analyze data from the households interviewed in 2021 in India's fifth Demographic and Health Survey, a subsample representative of about one-quarter of India's population. In this subsample, life expectancy at birth declined by 2.6 years between 2019 and 2020, a reduction that is larger than the loss in life expectancy observed in any high-income country (HIC) in the same period. Mortality was 17.0% higher in the pandemic months of 2020 compared to 2019. Applied nationally, this level of excess mortality implies 1.18 million excess deaths in 2020. Compared to HICs, mortality increases in younger ages in India contributed more to the decrease in life expectancy than older ages. Furthermore, the pandemic exacerbated gender and social inequalities. In contrast to global patterns, females in India experienced larger life expectancy losses than males. As compared to a life expectancy loss of 1.5 years for high caste Hindus, who are privileged in Indian society, Muslims lost 5.9 years, Scheduled Tribes lost 4.4 years, and Scheduled Castes lost 2.6 years. These findings uncover large and unequal mortality shocks during the pandemic in the world’s most populous country.

Photo by Shruti Parthasarathy.