As journalists enter crematoria to reveal the discrepancy between real and official Covid-19 deaths across India, Maharashtra’ Nashik and Beed districts report abandoned bodies in various cities. This amidst increasing reports of crematoria being overwhelmed in wake of an increasing number of bodies piling up for cremation everyday.
On April 29, 2021, the Maharashtra government’s Covid-19 dashboard flashed 67,214 deaths in the state. With a fatality rate of 1.1 percent, crematoria across the region are reeling under the load of the growing death toll.
Pune’s Baner Hindu crematorium told SabrangIndia that there was a waiting period of at least two hours before an aggrieved could say their final goodbye to kin.
Worse still, The Wire on April 28 reported about the lived experiences of Civil hospital an ambulance driver – originally a wireman – Manoj Patil, who drops around 25 to 30 bodies at the Amar Dham crematorium every day. Having witnessed cases where families abandoned their coronavirus positive relatives on roads or in hospitals or apartments, Patil along with his uncle ferried corpses in body bags to relevant kabristans or shamshan ghats.
The city’s largest crematorium Amar Dham struggles to attend to the ever-increasing number of bodies. At present, it deals with at least 100 bodies every day of which at least 60 deaths are related to Covid-19. As per the report, at least cremations can be seen at any given time. Mortician Sunita Patil, one of few women to hold such a post, told The Wire she had never witnessed such a scene in 20 years of service.
The crematorium even allowed for bodies to be burnt on pavements and roads inside the cremation ground to speed up the process but the queue of mourners remains. However, none of this is reflected in government records. As per the report, official figures show nine or ten Covid-19 deaths in Nashik city and 57 deaths overall in the district.
Meanwhile, Mumbai city turned its attention towards the fatality rate, hoping that the worst of the Covid-19 second wave is over. According to an Indian Express report, the death rate was as low as 0.2 percent until the first week of March. However, as of Thursday, April 29, the state Covid-19 dashboard flags a 2 percent fatality rate in the city.
This rise in deaths may be attributed to the healthcare infrastructure that is trying to stay afloat like its counterparts in other states. Speaking to the Indian Express, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) doctors stated three causes for the rising death toll:
· lack of ICU and ventilators
· delay in seeking timely care and
· delay in being referred from nursing homes or smaller centres to tertiary centres.
But instead of waiting for the BMC to address this issue, many Mumbaikars have risen to the challenge by trying to ease the suffering of patients waiting for admission in hospitals. Notably, the Muslim community in the city has been working 24 hours to help in-home patients. One such community group in Mumbai’s Bhindi-Bazaar that transports oxygen cylinders to people told SabrangIndia that volunteers deliver 50-60 cylinders a day.
“We are trying to make sure that the patients at home have some form of comfort, at least until they get admission in hospitals. Usually, we help the poorer section of society so we do not charge for the cylinders. We even provide second or third refills if a patient in need contacts us,” said Sayed Subhani, one of the volunteers at the place. Rich patients who contact their 24-hour helpline, 9869197521/ 9833129121, try to arrange for the transport of the cylinders that come with the whole kit of pipe and other paraphernalia. Subhani said that while his team works to supply oxygen cylinders, other groups in the region provide ventilators or approach crematoria on behalf of or with the bereaved family.
“All citizens here are working together trying to help Mumbaikars in any way they can. Some help with the burial, others provide relief like us. We collect the material from various resources to help patients as long as possible,” he said.
Still, the situation drastically differs from one district to another in Maharashtra. For example, in Beed district, with 862 cumulative cases of Covid-19 deaths, the fatality rate is 1.7 percent, close to Mumbai’s recent figures. Yet, unlike Mumbai there are no reported attempts to protect fellow citizens by good samaritans. In fact, on April 27, the Times of India reported corpses of 22 Covid-19 patients left in a single ICU ambulance in Ambajogai region of Beed district.
People were left outraged after an incident where local police allegedly snatched mobile phones of relatives who were recording the whole incident. While officials assured that they would look into the matter, earlier reports by The Hindu on April 7 already indicated that the area was running out of space to cremate their deceased. A makeshift facility was created on the Mandwa road away from residential areas where eight bodies of Covid-19 victims were cremated on one pyre.
Nonetheless, in terms of information, the district administration regularly updates hospital availability in the district. Updated data on the municipality website still shows 741 vacant hospitals beds including ones equipped with oxygen and ventilators. It may be mentioned that on Friday, the government dashboard reported 51,959 positive and 11,923 active cases in the district with a recovery rate of 75.4 percent.
Another problem is that such reports have also spooked smaller communities living in more remote areas like Washim city in a district of the same name. In conversation with SabrangIndia, resident Aathvan Bhanawat said that locals, mostly labourers and workers, hesitated to approach hospitals even if they showed symptoms of Covid-19. “Call it a fear of the vaccine, or hospitals in general, locals here do not want to travel to hospitals. They prefer to use their traditional methods to deal with the infection. There haven’t been any serious cases or deaths here so far but accessibility is a problem,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Bombay High Court told the state government that bodies cannot be kept lying for hours to be cremated. A division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice G. S. Kulkarni instructed the government and civic authorities to come up with a mechanism to address the issue. They further stated that hospitals must not release bodies from the crematorium unless crematoriums have a vacancy.
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