Non-stop cremations cast doubt on India’s COVID count

(Corrects Gujarat spelling in paragraph 1)

By Sumit Khanna, Alasdair Pal and Saurabh Sharma

AHMEDABAD, India, April 19 (Reuters) – Gas and firewood ovens at a crematorium in the Indian state of Gujarat have been operating for so long without interruption during the COVID-19 pandemic that metal parts have started to melt .

“We are working around the clock at 100% of our capacity to cremate the bodies on time,” Kamlesh Sailor, chairman of the trust that manages the crematorium in the diamond polishing town of Surat, told Reuters.

And with full hospitals, oxygen and drugs in short supply in an already creaky healthcare system, several major cities are reporting significantly higher numbers of cremations and burials under coronavirus protocols than the official death toll. of COVID-19, according to crematorium and cemetery workers, media and a review of government data.

India on Monday recorded a record 273,810 new daily infections and 1,619 deaths. Its total number of cases now stands at more than 15 million, just behind the United States.

Reliable data is at the heart of any government response to the pandemic, without which planning hospital vacations, oxygen and medication becomes difficult, experts say.

Government officials say the inadequacy of death tolls can be caused by several factors, including over-caution.

A senior public health official said the increase in the number of cremations was due to the cremation of bodies using COVID protocols “even though there is a 0.1% chance that the person is positive” .

“In many cases, patients arrive at the hospital in extremely critical condition and die before being tested, and there are cases where patients are brought to the hospital dead, and we don’t know if they are. they are positive or not, ”the official said.

“ VERY IRKSOME ”

But Bhramar Mukherjee, professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said many parts of India were in “data denial.”

“Everything is so muddy,” she said. “It feels like no one understands the situation very clearly, and it’s very annoying.”

In Surat, the second largest city in Gujarat, Sailor Kurukshetra’s crematorium and a second crematorium known as Umra have cremated more than 100 bodies per day under COVID protocols over the past week, well beyond the city’s official daily COVID death toll of about 25, according to interviews with workers.

Prashant Kabrawala, administrator of Narayan Trust, which operates a third city crematorium called Ashwinikumar, declined to provide the number of bodies received under COVID protocols, but said cremations have tripled in recent weeks.

“I have been going to the crematorium regularly since 1987, and have been involved in its day-to-day operations since 2005, but I haven’t seen so many corpses come to cremation in all these years”, even during an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1994 and the floods in 2006.

Gujarat government spokespersons did not respond to requests for comment.

India isn’t the only country to question its coronavirus statistics. But testimony from workers and a growing body of academic literature suggests that deaths in India are underreported compared to other countries.

Mukherjee’s research on India’s first wave concludes that there were 11 times more infections than reported, according to estimates from studies in other countries. There have also been between two and five times as many deaths as reported, well above global averages.

WORKING DAY AND NIGHT

In Lucknow, capital of the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, data from the largest COVID-only crematorium, Baikunthdham, shows double the number of bodies arriving on six different days in April than government data on deaths by COVID for the whole city.

The figures do not take into account a second COVID-only crematorium in the city, nor burials in the Muslim community which makes up a quarter of the city’s population.

Crematorium chief Azad, who goes by only one name, said the number of cremations under COVID protocols had quintupled in recent weeks.

“We are working day and night,” he said. “The incinerators are operating full time, but many people still have to wait with the bodies for the final rites.”

A Uttar Pradesh government spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

Elsewhere, India Today reported two crematoriums in Bhopal, the capital of the central state of Madhya Pradesh, 187 bodies were cremated following COVID protocols in four days this month, as the official COVID death toll rose. at five.

Last week, Sandesh, a Gujarati newspaper, counted 63 bodies leaving a single COVID-only hospital to be buried in the state’s largest city, Ahmedabad, on a day when government data revealed 20 coronavirus deaths.

The Lancet medical journal noted last year that four Indian states accounting for 65% of COVID deaths nationwide each recorded 100% of their coronavirus deaths.

But less than a quarter of deaths in India are medically certified, especially in rural areas, meaning the true COVID death rate in many other states in India may never be known.

“Most deaths go unrecorded, so it’s impossible to do a validating calculation,” Mukherjee said. (Reporting by Sumit Khanna in Ahmedabad, Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow and Alasdair Pal in New Delhi; editing by Nick Macfie)

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