India on Wednesday, 28 April, reached the grim landmark of a total of 2 lakh official COVID-19 deaths since the start of the pandemic. However, a look at the situation at crematoriums across the country signals that this figure may have been reached a lot earlier.
Amid a raging second wave, India has been battling a severe shortage of medical oxygen, ICU and hospital beds since the start of April 2021 when cases started spiking across the country, first in the worst-hit state of Maharashtra, where a new mutant variant of the virus was discovered.
The alarming spike in daily cases and fatalities has not only highlighted the inadequacy of health infrastructure, but also led to long waiting periods at crematoriums in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and several other states as they struggle to manage the mounting death toll.
According to the World Health Organization, a death should be recorded as a COVID death if the disease is assumed to have caused or contributed to it, even if the person had a pre-existing medical condition.
However, in India, that doesn’t seem to be happening, with multiple states appearing to grossly underreport COVID-19 deaths in their official bulletins.
At Delhi's biggest and oldest crematorium ground, Nigambodh Ghat, plumes of thick black smoke can be seen from afar day and night. The cremation ground is running out of space as the number of daily cremations have doubled from 15 to 30, reported NDTV.
The total figure of COVID deaths released by the Delhi government between 18-24 April shows 1,938 deaths.
However, an investigation by NDTV uncovered that this number is grossly undercounted by at least 1,158 deaths, as Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) data from 26 crematoriums shows 3,096 cremations of COVID victims were carried out in the same period.
According to the report, crematoriums are not recording people who died due to the virus at home as COVID cremations.
"“People who come from hospitals, come in ambulances. Others bring (bodies) from home. But if we look at their reports we will find that it is respiratory failure.”" - Anuj Bansal, a staff member of the Ghazipur crematorium to NDTV
The report further states that MCD also does not consider deaths at home as COVID deaths.
If the family says at the crematorium that the victim was battling COVID, it is counted in a separate category called “suspected.” The cremation, though, takes place with COVID protocol.
Several media reports have also shown aerial footage of plumes of black smoke arising from multiple pyres burning through the night as crematoriums are overrun with family members of deceased patients.
The NDTV report quotes Pashupati Mandal, a contractor at the Sarai Kale Khan cremation ground in South Delhi, who says that due to the sudden spike in bodies, he has been contracted to build around 100 new cremation platforms at a nearby park.
"“There are 60-70 bodies coming every day. We have a lot of pressure from the higher-ups to finish this as soon as possible.”" - Pashupati Mandal to NDTV
The death count has increased to such an extent that cremation grounds are running out of wood and are seeking help from the state forest department.
According to a Hindustan Times report, before the second wave hit, Nigambodh Ghat required 6,000-8,000 kg of wood daily, but this has now risen to 80,000-90,000 kg daily.
According to government records from 18-22 April, Bengaluru only reported 467 deaths in that time period. However, an independent investigation by The News Minute states that the actual number is much higher.
TNM investigated data from six crematoriums in the city, which revealed that at least 860 bodies were cremated between 18-22 April.
However, for these same days, the state bulletin showed that only 527 people died of COVID-19 in Bengaluru Urban and Bengaluru Rural combined. While the difference of 333 deaths may not all have been caused by COVID-19, for many, COVID test results had not come before their cremation.
TNM checked the test results of 65 SRF numbers, or the number of people who were cremated before their COVID status was known and found that 44 people out of these were COVID-19 positive, eight were negative, and results were awaited for 13.
Taking this as an example, it would mean that 60 percent of those who were cremated with their COVID status unknown did succumb to the virus.
Further, it appears that not all of these deceased whose test results came later were recorded in subsequent state bulletins either.
According to TNM, of the 44 people whose COVID-positive reports TNM had, only 10, which is less than one fourth the number, were included in subsequent state government COVID bulletins. Meanwhile, two of the deceased were even marked as having been discharged.
A similar discrepancy in the number of COVID deaths is also being witnessed in Gujarat, especially in the city of Surat.
Crematoriums in Surat are being overrun with COVID victims to an extent where bodies of five COVID patients were cremated on a single funeral pyre on 14 April.
According to a report by The Times of India dated 16 April, at Gujarat's SSG Hospital, at least 180 people had died in COVID ICUs in the previous nine days, while the number of deaths in COVID ICUs in GMERS Medical College and Hospital, Gotri had reached 115 since 7 April.
Combining these two government-run hospitals’ data, the death toll was seen to be close to 350 in a week. However, the government figures put the total death toll of the pandemic in entire Vadodara district at 300 since the outbreak of the disease last year.
Dharmesh Solanki, who handles cremations told The Times of India that in the last one week there had been "at least 22-25 patients daily in this designated COVID-19 crematorium. Nearly 7,500 kg of wood is being supplied by the Rotary Club, Ankleshwar, every day."
However, the Gujarat chief minister stands by the government figures released and has stated that the “government is not hiding any COVID fatalities.”
According to a New York Times report, crematoriums in the city of Bhopal haven’t been as busy since the catastrophic gas leak in 1984.
Figures on COVID deaths provided by the city’s civic body state that only 41 deaths were reported from 1-13 April. However, a survey conducted by NYT at the city’s main COVID-19 cremation and burial grounds revealed a death toll of more than 1,000 during the same period.
According to a presentation by NITI Aayog’s Vinod K Paul to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 25 April, Uttar Pradesh is projected to become the state worst-hit by COVID-19 by the end of April 2021, projecting just under 1.2 lakh cases.
MoHFW figures on 28 April indicate that the state has reported 264 deaths in the last 24 hours and 11,678 deaths in total. However, crematoriums in Lucknow and Ghaziabad are showing a different reality.
According to an India Today report, Baikunth Dham crematorium in Lucknow cremated 60 COVID patients on 27 April. However, the the government’s official data states that the city only reported 39 deaths that day.
A PTI report dated 25 April also shows the glaring discrepancy in death tolls in Kanpur Nagar district. According to official figures, from 19-24 April, the district reported only 66 COVID-19 deaths.
The report states that 406 cremations took place at the Bhairoghat crematorium and 56 in Bhagwatghat. Ninety-one of the cremations at Bhairoghat were performed on 21 April.
Officially, Uttar Pradesh’s Ghaziabad district had reported only two COVID-19 related deaths as of 19 April. However, there was a clear mismatch between the official figures and the ground reality.
According to videos and photos accessed by The Quint, crematoriums in Ghaziabad worked overtime to cope with the surge in number of deaths. Families of the deceased could be seen lined up outside crematoriums as they awaited their turn.
The Ghaziabad administration has also been constructing new platforms on the pavements of the roads leading to the cremation sites, reported Hindustan Times.
“The cremation facility can take in 15 bodies in a day. However, 43 bodies were brought in,” reported Hindustan Times, quoting a district official.
Worrying scenes of endless funeral fires are also being witnessed in Lucknow, where reports of discrepancy in COVID deaths prompted an odd response from the government on 15 April – block the view of the pyres with blue tin sheets.
The move came after a video of large number of burning pyres was widely shared on social media.
Along with the sheets, a new notice put up outside the crematorium announced that unauthorised people were no longer allowed to enter since it was a "COVID-19 affected area". Trespassers were warned of strict action.
As the state faces an unprecedented surge in deaths, crematoriums in some parts of UP have started increasing cost of the cremations.
Multiple reports from Varanasi have surfaced on social media where families are being asked to shell out anything between Rs 30,000-50,000 for cremation of their kin, in contrast to the usual charges of Rs 2,000-5,000.
“The same wood and 'samagri' that were earlier available for Rs 3,000 to 4,000 is now being sold for Rs 11,000 or more," reported The Times of India, quoting Rajesh Singh, a small business owner in Varanasi, who added that “the quantity is also compromised, but you just can't ask anything. Where will people go with dead bodies?”
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