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Covid crisis finds reflection at cremation grounds: ‘We thought the worst was over’

The ground has about 110 wood pyres and four CNG cremation units. Officials said bodies of Covid patients start coming around 10 am, and within 2-3 hours, half of the ground is filled.

Written by Ashna Butani , Jignasa Sinha | New Delhi | Updated: November 21, 2020 1:14:38 pm
At Nigambodh Ghat on Friday. Officials said one in five cremations here is of a Covid patient. (Express photo: Praveen Khanna)

“The pyres have been burning constantly for a few days now,” said a priest at Delhi’s Nigambodh Ghat Friday, as the sound of an ambulance rang out every few minutes. The November afternoon mirrored days from June when ambulances packed with bodies of those who had succumbed to Covid could be seen at the ghat.

As five ambulances waited outside, fatigued crematorium workers stood next to grieving relatives in masks, who had been waiting two hours to get a cremation slot, for which a token was needed from the admin office.

At 2 pm, with 15 pyres lit, workers tried to dissuade relatives in PPEs from going too close.

An MCD official told The Indian Express, “Over 100 bodies are being cremated here every day for the last two weeks, and roughly 20 a day are Covid patients.” A worker said that on November 18, when the Covid death was 131, over 30 cremations of patients took place here.

The ground has about 110 wood pyres and four CNG cremation units. Officials said bodies of Covid patients start coming around 10 am, and within 2-3 hours, half of the ground is filled.

Earlier this year, the crematorium had a separate section for Covid deaths, but with a decrease in deaths, the two sections were merged in August.

As five ambulances waited outside, fatigued crematorium workers stood next to grieving relatives in masks, who had been waiting two hours to get a cremation slot, for which a token was needed from the admin office. (Express photo: Praveen Khanna)

Rajesh (27), who works at LNJP hospital’s mortuary department, was deployed at the ghat amid a Covid surge in May. “I collect bodies that come from LNJP and help families set the pyre and do formalities. We had started to think Covid was over but this month has been shocking. There have been days where I carried 10-12 bodies here.” On Friday, as he asked a family member to wear a PPE, he was told a stern no. “I work morning to night without breaks… I am also scared, I have three daughters at home,” he said.

Anu Sharma (51), a priest also called the “Covid in-charge”, said the ghat has 30-40 helpers. “Two days ago, we cremated a total of 118 bodies,” he said.

“Now, no one is scared — they don’t follow social distancing or wear masks,” he said.

Vijay Kumar (55), a businessman who lost his wife to Covid, said he had been waiting to set the pyre for over two hours: “Sapna was fine last week… We celebrated Diwali with our son and grandson. She tested positive three days ago and was shifted to Aruna Asaf Ali Hospital. She had trouble breathing and was referred to a hospital in Burari. Last night, we spoke on the phone but by morning, she was no more.”

Outside the crematorium, Aashiq (20), who sells cremation items, said he sells PPE kits at Rs 300 because he does not want families to suffer. “In case someone cannot afford it, we give it to them for free.”

Earlier this year, the crematorium had a separate section for Covid deaths, but with a decrease in deaths, the two sections were merged in August. (Express photo: Praveen Khanna)

Similar scenes played out at Seemapuri ghat. An official said, “Daily, we get at least 15 Covid cremations, as opposed to two-three till a few weeks ago.”

Around 4 pm, an ambulance with two bodies in a white body bag waited outside, as cremations went on inside. Each family member inside was kitted in a PPE, but they weren’t allowed to light the pyre.

Relatives in personal protective equipment during cremation of a COVID-19 victim in New Delhi on Friday. (Express photo: Praveen Khanna)

An argument between a family member and a crematorium worker broke out over allowing them to do the rituals. Govind Sharma (30), who works there, said, “Sadly, we cannot show the families the face of the deceased, even if they request it.”

Used PPE kits were carelessly thrown across the road. “I can’t keep going out to check every few hours… Many family members visit the ghat despite being positive. I have young children at home; I might send them to my sister’s house in Jaipur where they will be safer,” said Sharma.

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