Are obituaries in Gujarat newspapers a better indicator of real Covid-deaths?

As crematorium workers refuse to talk in exact figures, local reporters reveal severe underreporting of Covid-deaths in urban and rural areas as well as crematorium conditions

covid data
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With every passing day, the divide between Gujarat’s real and government Covid-19 data grows wider. On April 27, 2021 Gujarat’s local newspaper Sandesh set aside five pages for obituaries in the Rajkot edition alone, while the state’s Covid-19 dashboard recorded only 14 deaths in the last 24 hours.

The newspaper has begun keeping a record of this disparity through routine articles compiling the death toll every two days. For example, on Tuesday, the paper stated that 87 bodies were cremated following Covid protocol over the last two days while the government only recorded two Covid deaths. Similarly, as per government data, over the last 24 hours, only 14 people died due to Covid-19 whereas crematoriums dealt with 228 bodies under the government protocol.


The government dashboard on Tuesday claimed 6,483 deaths in the state. Yet a Sandesh article on April 26 stated that 1,404 bodies from seven major cities alone were cremated as per Covid-19 protocol between April 23 and April 25. This means that over a thousand deaths were reported by ground-level workers within the span of two days. The Gujarat government only acknowledged 191 Covid-related deaths in the same duration.

City-wise, the highest disparity during this time was in Gandhinagar that reported three official Covid deaths even though 80 bodies were cremated as per Covid protocol. Similarly, Jamnagar cremated 208 bodies as per Covid protocol but the official data only acknowledges 23 Covid deaths. In Rajkot, 124 bodies followed the protocol but only 27 Covid deaths were reported.


On April 26, The Hindu reported that main government hospitals in Ahmedabad, Surat and other districts gave a much higher number of Covid-deaths. Ahmedabad’s designated Covid-hospital reported around 100-125 bodies on a daily basis. On Sunday, 67 bodies from Surat’s civil hospital and 34 bodies from the Municipal Corporation-run Smimer hospital were dispatched to crematoria.

A local political leader from Kutch’s Bhuj region told the newspaper that cemeteries eventually running out of space and time and wood, send the bodies to nearby village Sukhpar where additional furnaces cremate the bodies.

On April 24, Kutch district reported over 100 deaths, presenting an estimate as to the extent of the epidemic in the state’s least populous area. According to government officials speaking to The Hindu, many people in rural districts died without even getting tested due to lack of facilities.

To make matters worse, Sandesh on Sunday reported that crematoria nowadays refuse to accept bodies of home quarantined patients. Families, who have been treating such family members, have to dispose of the body in their own way by digging holes and wrapping the body in plastic or a PPE kit. This, in addition to exposing more people to the virus, also complicates the registration of Covid-19 deaths.

Time and again, media channels like Sandesh on April 15, asked Chief Minister Vijay Rupani about these disparities. However, Rupani maintained that the government was following Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines related to recording Covid-19 deaths. During the televised interview he said that guidelines did not categorise deaths of Covid-19 patients who had pre-existing diseases like cancer and diabetes as Covid-deaths. He argued that older patients with late-stage cancer have “broken immunity” and thus the primary cause of death is cancer.

However, on Monday, AltNews fact-checked this claim by going through the ICMR guidelines which clearly state on page three, “Patients may present with other pre-existing comorbid conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma, chronic bronchitis, ischemic heart disease, cancer and diabetes mellitus. These conditions increase the risk of developing respiratory infections and may lead to complications and severe disease in a COVID-19 positive individual. These conditions are not considered as UCOD (underlying cause of death) as they have directly not caused death due to COVID-19. Also, a patient may have many co-morbid conditions, but only those that have contributed to death should be recorded in Part 2.

Speaking to AltNews, National Centre for Disease Informatics and Research (NCDIR) Director Prashant Mathur said, “Irrespective of the cause of death it is important to use COVID-19 related mortality codes on Medical Certificate of Cause of Death (MCCD) forms to understand the impact of the pandemic accurately.”

Rupani also called for a doctoral committee to audit each death during the interview. “They distinguish the cause of death as primary or secondary. For example, if 100 deaths take place and only 20 are reported (under Covid), then 80 are due to primary reason (non-Covid) and 20 is due to the secondary reason,” he said.

Yet the fact remains that the government only acknowledges those deaths whose primary cause is determined to be Covid-19. Further, only infected people who died of viral pneumonia are classified under this category, said The Hindu.

Meanwhile, regional news media meticulously continues to report break-ups of deaths at the grassroot level. Other than Sandesh, the Loktej newspaper reported 467 bodies cremated as per Covid protocol in Surat over the last 10 days as against the 24 official deaths on April 25. The break-up of this number as per the newspaper, is as follows: 145 deaths in Olapad taluka, 75 deaths in Bardoli taluka, 75 deaths in Mandavi taluka, 68 deaths in Mangalore taluka, 65 deaths in Kamrej taluka, 49 deaths in Mandavi taluka, 18 deaths in Mahuva taluka, 18 deaths in Palsana taluka, 17 deaths in Chaurasi taluka and 12 in Umarpada taluka.


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