Updated: April 15, 2021 2:29:59 pm
Donning a PPE suit Chirag Patel waited at the Vadaj crematorium in Ahmedabad for his turn to cremate his 55-year-old brother, who succumbed to the coronavirus disease Monday, just three days after he showed symptoms for the viral infection.
At Chandkheda crematorium, he was told the wait would be for 12 hours as there were about eight to 10 bodies in the queue. So, he came to Vadaj, some seven kilometres away, which is open round-the-clock. Even at Vadaj, he had to wait for more than two hours.
Chirag said brother’s RT-PCR test report is still due, and so he could not be admitted to a hospital. “We got the test done at a private lab in Chandkheda two days back but still have not received the report. Today, (Monday) morning after his death, we checked with the doctors and they told us over the telephone that it is Covid-19,” Chirag said.
For the relatives of deceased patients, queues begin from the wait at hospitals for their dear one’s body, for hearse vans to take them to the resting place, to finding a furnace free at a crematorium — the time for each disposal/cremation has increased because of the Covid-19 protocol. To meet the rush crematoriums are running round the clock. At Surat’s largest Ashwani Kumar (AK) crematorium of the 10 gas-fired furnaces one saw its chimneys turning red hot and was shut for a day.
On Sunday, Parin Shah (27), whose father runs a tea stall at Olpad village, carried his 60-year-old mother Bhadra’s body for two kilometres on a hand cart to the crematorium because the village panchayat refused him an ambulance or access to the crematorium. His mother, who was being treated for kidney stones, did not get a bed at the Jeevan Raksha hospital in the neighbouring Sayan village.
“When she died, we contacted the village panchayat for the common ambulance, but they declined to give us the ambulance or the keys to the crematorium suspecting that she may have succumbed to Covid-19. Later, we used the influence of a local leader and had the crematorium opened late in the night. We had to ferry my mother on a fruit hand cart of our neighbour after packing her body with plastic on our own,” Shah said.
When contacted, BJP MLA of Olpad Mukesh Patel said Covid-19 patients were neither given ambulance nor allowed to the cremation ground for final rites. “(In Shah’s case) there might be a misunderstanding between relatives of the deceased and the village deputy sarpanch for which they were denied keys to the cremation ground,” he said.
The BJP MLA added that they were in talks with the authorities of the private hospitals in Olpad to find out if they needed oxygen and ventilators. “We will try and get them from somewhere else,” he said.
In Surat’s Ashwani Kumar crematorium, 1,090 bodies have been cremated in a span of 10 days until Saturday, an employee of the Narayan Trust that runs the facility, told The Indian Express. “Between March 1 and 31, 1,339 bodies were cremated. Last year, during the first wave of Covid-19, from March 20 to 31, the crematorium saw 330 bodies. From April 1 to 10 that year, a total of 222 cremations were recorded – including Covid-19 patients and others,” the staffer said.
On Sunday, 15 bodies were queued at the Ashwani Kumar crematorium. “Those who die of Covid-19 are only cremated in the gas furnaces. We have a staff of 20 people, including four who are engaged in booking and issuing token numbers to relatives of the dead, apart from priests and other helpers. Our Trust is also planning to add two more gas-based furnaces by next week,” the employee added.
Metal frames of gas furnaces, on which the bodies are kept, and chimneys at Kurukshetra crematorium and Ashvini Kumar crematorium in Surat are reportedly melting or breaking because of overheating and excessive use. According to PTI, around 16 gas-based furnaces at the two crematoriums were operating 24×7 to cremate bodies with the city reporting 18 to 19 deaths due to Covid-19 every day since the last couple of days.
Subhash Thayi, working at the AK crematorium, said, “Of 10 gas-based furnaces, nine are working. There was a problem in one furnace as due to the overload, a pipe started to turn red (hot) yesterday. We have got it repaired and now it is functional. The reason why such problem occurs is that we get heavy rush of bodies for Covid-19. At present, we are using two gas-based furnaces for burning Covid-19 bodies.” Cleaning the gas furnace, he added, takes about three hours and is done at night which has left the staff “overburdened”.
Across Gujarat, the fatalities due to Covid-19 have been rising steadily since the last week of March. The Gujarat government had issued an order in April last year, directing audit of all Covid-19 deaths. Only cases where primary reason of death was determined to be Covid19 would be classified as “Covid-19 deaths”, the order stated. However, the sheer numbers of those dying due to the virus or its impact can be gauged by sheer stress on the crematoriums.
Gujarat has seen 4,919 Covid-19 deaths, 67 of which were reported on Tuesday.
At the Vadaj facility in Ahmedabad, a CNG-fired furnace has been designated for Covid-19 cremations, while wood pyres for the non-Covid ones. An electric furnace, under repair, is to be made functional soon. An employee at Vadaj crematorium, who did not wish to be named, told The Indian Express that of the 25-30 bodies that came daily, nearly five of Covid-19 patients. “We have been operating 24×7 and do not deny anyone last rites here. Residents from a radius of 6-7 km come here. There is a little but not much hike in the numbers. One of the chimneys is being repaired, once done, the waiting period will be eased,” the employee said.
In Rajkot, as the number of those dying of Covid-19 went up from 10 on April 1 to 24 on April 7 its four facilities at Ramnathpara, Mavdi, Mota Mava, and Bapunagar, struggled to manage the flow of bodies, leading to long waiting periods for last rites of victims.
On Saturday, Rajkot Mayor Pradeep Dav directed three more crematoriums, all with wooden pyres, to handle bodies of Covid-19 victims even as the state government-run Pandit Deendayal Upadhayay Hospital, tied up with crematorium in Navagam village on the city’s outskirts, to dispose of bodies.
Ramnathpara has two electric furnaces and one gas-fired furnace. Mavdi and Mota Mava have one electric furnace each.
“It takes an average of 90 minutes to cremate a person with Covid-19 protocols. Given the limited capacity these four crematoriums had, relatives of Covid-19 victims had to wait for performing the last rites of their loved ones. That is a very painful situation for anyone to be in. Therefore, we decided to authorise crematoriums in Rukhadiyapara, Thorala and Popatpara. I concede there is still a backlog as of today. But we are hopeful there will be no waiting period from tomorrow onwards as the new crematoriums will start cremating at least nine bodies simultaneously,” Dav told The Indian Express.
An RMC control room, set up for handling bodies of Covid-19 patients and to coordinate between hospitals and crematoriums, said 53 bodies were cremated on Saturday and 45 more had been disposed of by 6 pm on Sunday — the city’s highest single-day fatality. “Only one body is on the waiting list as of now,” said an officer of the control room.
Dav said the RMC would give a grant of Rs 1,550 per body to the new crematorium “to shoulder this additional responsibility” adding that Rajkot’s numbers were also inclusive of people from across Saurashtra who are coming to the city for getting treatment of Covid-19.
At Vadodara’s Khaswadi crematorium, an employee said, “In an eight-hour shift, at least 15 to 20 bodies have come in for the last one week. The number has been high.” Vadodara has nine other crematoriums that can being used for the cremations, which are witnessing as much rush as Khaswadi according to Swami Jyotirnath, who has been coordinating cremations. According to Jyotirnath, Vadodara’s daily death count has been around 120 since the last two weeks — in normal times it sees about 42 deaths in a day and average of 70 during season change. To reduce the stress on crematoriums, the Vadodara Municipal Corporation decided to add at least 15 more wooden pyres in the smaller crematoriums in the city on war footing on Tuesday.
In the backyard of Kalali crematorium, five additional pyres were set up late Tuesday evening while work is on in other crematoriums, like in Jambuva area.
A relative of a Covid-19 deceased, waiting by the ambulance in the queue Saturday night, said, “We waited at Gotri hospital for the body for over four hours. They had to finish the standard processes. One of our relatives came to the crematorium to get a token but the staff refused, saying that they do not give tokens in advance until the body arrives. Why are relatives, who have already lost their loved ones in almost unpredictable circumstances, being made to suffer like this? We are here in the queue and it will be at least seven more hours until we go home with the ashes.”
Each gas-fired incinerator takes close to one-and-a-half hour for each body to be completely disposed of and reduced to ashes and readying it for the next funeral, says the staff. “There is no time to even conduct maintenance. What can we do about the delay when there is such crowd? But we have decided that only Covid-19 bodies are consigned to the gas furnace. The wooden pyre will be used for all other cremations. Of course, even bodies of suspected Covid-19 patients are taken to wooden pyres. We have a capacity to dispose seven bodies at a time. We are trying to squeeze in two more,” a staff member, who has not gone home since Thursday, said.
Dr Devesh Patel, Medical Officer of Health, Vadodara Municipal Corporation, said there were enough cremation grounds that were open round-the-clock. “Now, even the people who have lost relatives to natural deaths do not want to keep their bodies at home at night. They arrive at the crematorium at any time, and we cannot send them back although cremations at night are only meant for Covid-19 bodies, actually,” Patel said.
In Bharuch district, where the administration has set up a makeshift crematorium on the Narmada bank since the outbreak of the pandemic last year due to protests at regular crematorium in the district, five functional wooden pyres are seeing incessant cremations. District Collector MD Modiya said four more pyres will be added at the riverbank to deal with the increasing number of deaths in the district.
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