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Monday, May 10, 2021

Counting the Covid dead in the capital: on paper, at the pyre, and in between

In the last 10 days, from April 18 to April 27, as many as 3,049 died of Covid. And an almost equal number, 3909, died suspected to have had Covid.

Written by Anand Mohan J | New Delhi |
Updated: April 30, 2021 5:47:24 pm
A total of 1,512 people in Himachal have died of covid-related illnesses, according to government data. (Representative Photo)

The harrowing images playing out from cities and towns across the country show mourners lined up outside crematoriums, rows of funeral pyres burning with hardly a break, last-rites arrangements being hurriedly scrambled for the rising number of dead.

In the capital, currently the Ground Zero of the fierce second wave, these images frame a growing gap between the number laid to rest and that put on paper as the official Covid death toll, records accessed by The Indian Express show.

Data from the capital’s 23 key crematoriums and cemeteries maintained by Delhi’s three civic bodies based on death certificates and hospital reports explain the unprecedented scale of the unfolding tragedy that goes beyond the daily Covid dashboard. The number of funerals at Muslim burial grounds as per Covid protocol is awaited.

In the last 10 days, from April 18 to April 27, as many as 3,049 died of Covid. And an almost equal number, 3909, died suspected to have had Covid.

“This gap indicates that there are many more cases in the city than those being tested,” said a senior doctor. “We always knew this gap exists but now that the case load is surging and many of them are dying, this evidence is more stark.”

Indeed, the total number of dead in the city in these 10 days (Covid, suspected Covid and non-Covid) was 12,069. Contrast this with deaths in the city in pre-Covid year 2019 — on an average, as per official data, 12,107 died in one month.

That toll is now in just 10 days, the breakup of the funerals in this period shows:

* Official Covid death toll: 3,049

* Number laid to rest as per Covid protocol: 6,958

* Number laid to rest as “regular” (read without Covid protocol) funerals: 5,111

A Covid protocol funeral means that of a patient who died of Covid (tested and confirmed) and of those who had Covid symptoms and were suspected to have died — had not been tested — of the disease. Under Covid protocol, crematorium staff and mourners have to follow hand hygiene and use PPE while handling bodies. All Covid protocol funerals are held in a dedicated area of the crematorium.

A senior MCD officer explained the process behind each funeral: “We have a tie-up with hospitals located in the respective jurisdictions of the three MCD zones. The hospitals inform us that the patient is either Covid positive or had symptoms related to Covid, in which case he/she is designated as a suspected case. In both cases, the body is cremated as per Covid protocol. There are a few who live outside Delhi but die in hospitals here, we show them as MCD funerals.”

The capital has three civic bodies — North, East and South. As per data, the North Delhi Municipal Corporation saw 2,998 funerals conducted under Covid protocol; the South civic body saw 3,236; and the figure for EDMC stood at 724.

No wonder then that the MCD is working to ramp up its funeral facilities.

Said NDMC Mayor Jai Prakash: “Our biggest challenge is those people who die at home. They don’t have Covid reports and may have died at home for lack of oxygen. We are under tremendous pressure. There are 750 platforms reserved for Covid deaths all over Delhi. In North MCD, we are increasing the number by 350 in the coming days.”

In the 10-day period, Nigambodh Ghat saw the maximum number of Covid cremations — 1460. Said its crematorium in-charge, Avdesh Sharma: “Most of our workers have left; they are tired and wary of getting infected. We are preparing for a stronger wave of deaths.”

Sultan Singh, the in-charge of Panchkuian Road crematorium, said he, too, is left with a small crew of eight workers as more and more bodies come in. Said SDMC Mayor Anamika Mithlesh Singh: “We have earmarked land in Sarai Kale Khan with a target of increasing 20 pyres for now. It will be increased to 100 in the coming month.”

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