Fear of cover-up, as crematoriums record twice as many deaths in Covid as the official death toll
While India faces one of the most deadly outbreaks of the Covid-19 pandemic, this week India’s health minister, Harsh Vardhan, insisted that his death rate from the disease remained “the lowest in the world”.
It was a statement that shocked the devastating images and reports that flowed from India in the past fortnight, from crowded hospitals and morgues, people dying on the sidewalks from lack of oxygen and crematoriums and cemeteries visibly overflowing with bodies.
The official death toll in India has continued to rise relentlessly. On Saturday, it was another record day, with 401,993 new cases and 3,523 deaths. However, health experts believe that the official daily figures do not even come close to reflecting the actual number of deaths.
Because Covid-19 patients are unable to enter hospitals, many are dying at home, often without ever being tested. Meanwhile, state governments and local officials are accused of rampant errors, covering up and overshadowing the true death toll in their states. Last month, in the city of Karnataka, Bangalore – where the number of cases is among the fastest growing in the country – the number of Covid-related deaths recorded in crematoriums was double the official death toll.
Cover-up claims have been particularly prevalent in Uttar Pradesh, where the state government is controlled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the hardline chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, insists that the state is not lacking in oxygen and has threatened prosecute those who “spread panic”. The authorities denied any cover-up.
In the city of Muzaffarnagar, in Uttar Pradesh, the data collected by the Observer shows a large discrepancy between the official death toll recorded by the local authority and the reports given by those who run its crematoriums and cemeteries.
According to official statistics, Muzaffarnagar had just 10 deaths from Covid in four days in late April. However, Ajay Kumar Agarwal, president of the crematorium in the city of Muzaffarnagar, said that this is nowhere near the scale of bodies he was handling.
“In normal times, we were cremating three bodies a day, but in the past 10 days it has increased,” he said. “One day it was 18, another day it was 20, then 22 and a day 25. In the last 10 days, we had no fewer than 12 bodies a day – 90% of them corona deaths.”
With only seven pyres in the crematorium in the city of Muzaffarnagar, Agarwal said they were so overwhelmed that they had to cremate the bodies in the open and send some to another crematorium 20 miles away. “The situation here is pathetic,” he said,
Agarwal claimed that “incorrect” figures were being published and rejected suggestions that the city had experienced any day this week with no deaths from Covid or just two deaths. “The government does not disclose the correct numbers of deaths,” he said. “I don’t understand why they are hiding them. Maybe they don’t want people to panic. “
Sanjay Mittal, in Muzaffarnagar’s only other crematorium, New Mandi, told similar scenes. He said that “I have never seen such a situation in my life – we are burning pyre from morning to night”.
According to Mittal, before the pandemic, the New Mandi crematorium usually saw five bodies arriving in one day. But on April 27 they received 21 bodies, on April 28 it was 15 and on April 29 it was 18. He could not confirm how many were Covid-19 positive.
“It is noon and we already had 12 bodies. Who knows how many there will be at the end of the day, ”he said on Friday.
A similar recent increase in bodies has also been reported by Abdul Quadir, who runs the Muslim cemetery in Muzaffarnagar. “Before the corona, we buried two to three bodies a week, but now there are six to seven bodies every day,” he said. “So far, only three of these bodies have come from the hospital, the rest have died at home and had not been tested.”
Official government data confirm very low Covid-19 test rates in Muzaffarnagar; on Tuesday, April 27, there were no examinations in the area, while on April 29, only 561 examinations were performed, all with a positive result.
A doctor at the Indian Medical Association in Uttar Pradesh, who asked not to be named, said many people were dying from illnesses like pneumonia and pulmonary fibrosis, which they contracted as a result of Covid-19 complications. He said: “The number of these deaths is very high, but they are not being counted as deaths from coronavirus”.
He added: “We accept that the number of deaths from coronavirus is much higher than the public data from the district administration. The bodies we see huddling in crematoriums are mostly people who were undergoing treatment at home and died there. The number of these deaths is also high, but most of them are not recorded in official data. The test fee here is very low compared to the need. “
Muzaffarnagar’s medical director did not respond to requests for comment.
Murad Banaji, a mathematician who modeled the Covid-19 pandemic in India, said “a lot of evidence shows that Covid’s insufficient death count is a major problem in India”. He added: “Before we start to congratulate ourselves on India’s low death rate, the first thing that needs to be clarified is that we don’t have a good idea of how many people are dying from Covid in the country.”
According to Banaji’s estimates, the death toll in India must be at least three times higher than the official figures. This is based on calculations from cities like Mumbai, where he examined the number of “excess deaths” that were recorded in the city during 2020, when the pandemic first hit (excess deaths refer to the number of deaths that exceed the average number of deaths usually recorded at a location each year).
Banaji found that in Mumbai there was an unprecedented increase in these deaths, and for every recorded Covid-19 death, there was an excess death not considered to be caused by Covid.
“Not all excess deaths may have been caused by Covid-19,” explained Banaji. “But, from what we can collect from international data and studies, most likely yes, and in the case of Mumbai, my estimate is a minimum of 60% to 70% of those additional additional deaths were from Covid.”
These calculations would push the actual death toll in Mumbai from 13,000 to about 21,000. However, Banaji emphasized that for rural and impoverished areas in India, in states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which have limited health infrastructure, death records and Covid tests, the number of Covid unreported deaths was “probably huge , much bigger than in a city like Mumbai ”.
The implications of India’s failure to accurately report the true death toll from the pandemic are extensive. If, as many believe, underestimation occurs in most marginalized communities, the true toll of the pandemic in these groups is likely never to be recognized, and this will have an impact on the distribution of resources after the pandemic and on accountability by local authorities or governments. Likewise, experts fear that this could hamper the state’s ability to build an effective vaccination strategy to combat future outbreaks.
“If we don’t have the data to fully understand what is going on with this pandemic now,” said Banaji, “how can India prepare for the future?”