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Explained: What is behind the mismatch in Delhi’s Covid death figures?

The mismatch in the capital's coronavirus toll, between the numbers maintained by the Delhi government and the three municipal corporations of the city, has once again come to the fore.

Written by Sourav Roy Barman , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: June 19, 2020 9:38:50 pm
Delhi coronavirus deaths, Delhi hospital Covid deaths, Delhi covid deaths, Delhi government hospitals, Delhi hospitals, Delhi coronavirus news, Arvind Kejriwal Medics take samples of suspected COVID-19 patients for a lab test at the government-run Rajiv Gandhi Super Hospital in New Delhi on June 10, 2020. (Express Photo: Amit Mehra)

The mismatch in the capital’s coronavirus toll, between the numbers maintained by the Delhi government and the three municipal corporations of the city, once again came to the fore on Thursday, with the civic bodies releasing consolidated data of cremations and burials conducted under Covid protocol.

In fact, the death count maintained by the Delhi government has also nearly doubled between June 1 and June 11 – increasing from 523 to 1,085. But the municipal bodies, which are governed by the BJP, claim 2,098 funerals of Covid-19 positive patients have taken place in the city so far.

When did the mismatch first emerge?

While the MCDs on Thursday presented their claims in a joint press conference by mayors and standing committee heads of the North, South and East Delhi Municipal Corporations, the mismatch had first emerged in May itself. Around May 9, when the city’s official toll was 66, data separately released by hospitals had shown as many as 116 people had actually succumbed to the infection. Chief Secretary Vijay Dev, on May 10, had issued an order, saying “both public and private hospitals are not reporting the deaths of positive cases of Covid-19 in a timely and regular manner”.

When did the MCDs enter the picture?

After the mismatch had first emerged, on May 16, Delhi Health Secretary Padmini Singla wrote to the civic bodies, seeking details of cremations and burials of people who either had or were suspected to have Covid-19 at the Nigambodh Ghat and Punjabi Bagh crematoriums and the ITO graveyard of bodies. The MCDs replied saying there had been 426 cremations or burials of corona positive persons at six designated cremation/burial grounds until May 16. The official death toll was 194 at that point.

What happened next?

On May 19, Health Secretary Singla once again flagged the delay in reporting deaths on the part of the hospitals. She wrote to the District Magistrates and all hospitals observing that “health care facilities in Delhi are not timely reporting death of Covid positive persons as per the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)”. She reiterated that the hospitals must report every death to the Death Audit Committee constituted by the state government on April 20. She added that “despite repeated reminders, the death summaries of the deceased patients are not being provided to the Death Audit Committee, resulting in incorrect/delayed reports being submitted.”

What is the Death Audit Committee?

The three-member committee— with Dr Ashok Kumar, former Director General of Health Services as chairperson and Dr Vikas Dogra and Dr RN Das as members— has been tasked with auditing “daily each and every death in which the Covid-19 test is positive in government and private hospitals before releasing data”.

What SOP do the hospitals and the committee follow?

Under the guidelines, the hospitals are expected to report all death cases, along with scanned copies of case summary, medical files and other relevant data with the committee by 5 pm every day. The hospitals have also been directed to appoint nodal officers just for this purpose. The audit committee is then expected to meet at 5.30 pm for examining the reports and declare after “due diligence death due to Covid-19 or otherwise”. If a hospital does not send its report on any given day, the state surveillance officer has been tasked with dialling up the management of the concerned hospital immediately. If even that does not work, the Director General of Health Services is expected to intervene. And if the delay persists, the concerned hospital will have to file a written submission the very next day, explaining the reason behind the delay.

What were the observations of the Delhi High Court on the mismatch?

Late last month, a PIL alleging fabrication of corona deaths data in the city was filed in the HC. However, the court, citing lack of material evidence produced by the petitioners, junked the petition. The court had also observed that “there seems to be no arbitrariness or discrimination being done nor is there are any material to show false fabrication of data in question being published the respondent.” It added that there is “no doubt” that the members of the Committee are experts in their subject and field. For the ruling AAP, the court ruling came as a relief. However, the PIL did not stand the scrutiny of the court also due to procedural lapses on the part of the petitioners. This also found mention in the ruling, which said the petitioner “may agitate its grievances at a subsequent stage with proper supporting material.” It said the petition has been filed on the basis of newspaper reports “without any proper research”.

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