At about 3 pm on Friday, three staff undertakers at the Covid-19 Khaswadi crematorium in Karelibaug in Vadodara await the arrival of the hearse van of the Vadodara Municipal Corporation (VMC)’s fire ambulance. The hearse is bringing the body of a Covid-19 patient — the fifth cremation of the day as per the protocols. One of the three staff asks another to check with the ambulance driver if he is also bringing along the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) kits for them. The answer is “no”.
When the hearse arrives, the driver, wearing a PPE, hands out disposable hand gloves to the three men and the body is taken to the gas fired cremation furnace. The body was of a 59 -year-old resident Bharuch. The family claimed that after his death in the wee hours of Friday, the family was made to wait for over eight hours before the body was handed over to them.
“The hospital staff told us that the procedure of preparing the body for the Covid-19 funeral takes time. However, we later learnt that the staff was taking time as there had been other deaths simultaneously and hearse van was occupied on other scheduled trips. We were given the body this afternoon and brought to Khaswadi,” the man’s son said.
The family said they were surprised to see the crematorium staff without PPE kits but they could not delay the rituals further.
“We asked them about the kits but they said that since the body has been appropriately disinfected and wrapped as per protocol, they will go ahead with the cremation so that we do not have to wait further. We felt bad but we were grateful to them for understanding our plight,” the son said.
“Two other Covid-19 cremations are lined up after this. But there is no sign of the PPE kits. We have been asking our supervisors to look into the matter but they say that the VMC has not provided the kits,” says one of the three men, who is in his late 50s and has been working at the crematorium for over two decades.
The undertakers claim that with the rising number of cremations in the last two months, they have had to go without PPE kits while executing the cremations in the designated gas chamber. “If we contract the virus, we will have no one backing us or our families. We are not doctors or policemen who are recognised as frontline warriors,” laments another, even as the family of the Covid-19 deceased, from Bharuch district, whom they just consigned to flames, thanks them and leaves.
The crematorium, which is run by the Jalaram Sevashram Trust, has been a designated Covid-19 crematorium in the city since the outbreak of the pandemic in March.
Kaushik Pandey, gas operator and supervisor of the Khaswadi crematorium and a member of the trust that manages seven crematoriums in the city blamed the civic body for the situation.
“The VMC has not been sending the PPE kits in time. Every time, we have to send someone from the crematorium to their store in Sama area and fetch the kits. Compared to the other three designated Covid-19 crematoriums, Khaswadi sees the maximum cremations as per the protocol. We cannot keep the bodies waiting. Even though we try our best to procure the kits in time, sometimes, the staff performs their duty even if the kits are not available. We are conducting more than 15 cremations per day as per the Covid-19 guidelines. We need at least 60 PPE kits per day,” Pandey said.
According to Pandey, the civic body has also stopped sanitising the crematorium regularly. He also alleged that the VMC has not been paying the money in time.
“They have to pay us Rs 11,000 per month for each gas chamber. But they pay Rs 9,000 per month and we have to also manage the maintenance with that amount. We have about four staff members who need to be paid,” Pandey says.
On Friday, a group of staff members of the designated crematoriums in the city staged a protest and submitted a memorandum to the VMC to make PPE kits available for each cremation.
VMC Medical Officer of Health Dr Devesh Patel denied the allegations of PPE kits being unavailable to undertakers. “The issue is with the trust that manages the crematorium. There is no dearth of PPE kits. We have supplied PPE kits to them whenever they have asked for it. Sometimes, even when it is available they do not want to wear it. They are not following their contractual obligations. They submit bills late and claim that the VMC has not paid them. They have been trying to arm twist the civic body… We have already told them that they can end their service contract if they are not able to cope up with the situation,” Patel said.
Until Friday, the VMC has recorded a total 89 Covid-19 deaths.
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