Gas and firewood furnaces at a crematorium in the western Indian state of Gujarat have been running so long without a break during the COVID-19 pandemic that metal parts have begun to melt.
- Fewer than a quarter of all deaths in India are registered, making estimating the COVID-19 fatality rate difficult
- The Chief Minister of the Indian capital declared the shortage of oxygen in the state was at “emergency” level
- India’s official numbers put it second to the United States in total caseload, with 14.8 million cases
With hospitals full and oxygen and medicine in short supply in an already creaky health system, several major cities are reporting far larger numbers of cremations and burials under coronavirus protocols than official COVID-19 death tolls, according to crematorium and cemetery workers, media and a review of government data.
A senior state health official said the increase in the number of cremations in Gujarat — Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state — was due to bodies being disposed of using COVID-19 protocols “even if is 0.1 per cent probability of the person being positive”.
COVID-19 protocols for burials and cremations include people who handle the bodies using full personal protective equipment and bodies being placed in plastic body bags after disinfection.
India in ‘data denial’
However Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, warns many parts of India are in “data denial”.
“Everything is so muddy,” she said.
“It feels like nobody understands the situation very clearly, and that’s very irksome.”
In Gujarat’s second largest city, Surat, crematorium workers say they have cremated more than 100 bodies a day in accordance with COVID protocols over the past week, far in excess of the state’s official daily COVID-19 death tally of 25 per day.
The manager of a third crematorium, Prashant Kabrawala, trustee of Narayan Trust, said cremations there had tripled in recent weeks.
In Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, data from the largest coronavirus-only crematorium shows double the number of bodies arriving on six different days in April than government data on COVID-19 deaths for the entire city.
Crematorium head Azad said the number of cremations under COVID-19 protocols had risen five-fold in recent weeks.
A spokesman for the Uttar Pradesh government did not respond to a request for comment.
The state government yesterday declined to abide by a High Court order calling for a lockdown in five cities, including Lucknow, until April 26.
The Chief Minister is choosing instead to impose less severe restrictions, according to several Indian news outlets, with a view to preserving livelihoods.
Uttar Pradesh, with a population of more than 200 million, has been one of the states hardest hit by COVID-19’s second wave, recording more than 30,000 new cases in the latest 24-hour period.
India’s capital in crisis
In the north, New Delhi is facing a critical shortage of hospital beds and medical oxygen as it sees record daily case numbers.
Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has called a six-day lockdown in an attempt to avert a health catastrophe.
Mr Kejriwal said the oxygen shortage had become an “emergency” in Delhi and complained on Twitter that its desperately needed oxygen supply quota was being diverted to other states.
Delhi, with its population of 20 million, has only 100 critical care beds available.
Its COVID-19 positivity rate has jumped from 24 per cent to 30 per cent, and medicines like anti-viral drug Remdesivir are in short supply.
In the eastern state of West Bengal, where an election is being bitterly fought, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has acknowledged a shortage of medicines and vaccines.
Indian news outlet The Hindu reported her saying the clearance she sought from the central government in February to purchase vaccines using state funds had yet to be approved.
Reliable data is at the heart of any government response to the pandemic, without which planning for hospital vacancies, oxygen and medicine becomes difficult, experts say.
The resultant desperation gripping the country is visible on social media.
Twitter in India has been flooded with pleas for help finding hospitals that will take dying relatives, requests for any helpline numbers that still work, and calls for assistance in procuring oxygen or medicines.
One of India’s most widely circulated news magazines, India Today, has even stepped in to try to fill the gap left by government authorities, using its online platform to publicise the pleas of people who need plasma.
Self-help and emergency assistance groups have sprung up, run by ordinary citizens, religious groups, activists, and students, to do things like run errands and deliver food to people who are sick or isolating, and arrange medicines and oxygen.
As this second wave of COVID-19 wreaks havoc across the nation, the Indian government has begun to take steps to mitigate the damage, like promising express trains to deliver oxygen, committing not to hold more large election rallies, and allowing vaccinations for people over 18 from May 1.