Non-stop cremations cast doubt on India’s counting of COVID dead

Gas and firewood furnaces at a crematorium in the western Indian state of Gujarat have been running so long without a break during the COVID-19 pandemic that metal parts have begun to melt.

“We are working around the clock at 100 percent capacity to cremate bodies on time,” Kamlesh Sailor, the president of the trust that runs the crematorium in the diamond-polishing city of Surat, told the Reuters news agency.

And with hospitals full and oxygen and medicines in short supply in an already creaky health system, several big cities are reporting far larger numbers of cremations and burials under coronavirus protocols than official COVID-19 death tolls, according to crematorium and cemetery workers, media and a review of government data.

India’s daily COVID-19 cases retreated from record levels on Tuesday but stayed above the 200,000 mark for a sixth-straight day, with cases increasing by 259,170 over the last 24 hours. Deaths rose by a record 1,761, health ministry data showed.

Officially, almost 180,000 Indians have died from coronavirus, 15,000 of them this month, although some believe the real number may be higher.

Indian social media and newspaper reports have been flooded with horrifying images of row upon row of burning pyres and crematoriums unable to cope.

‘Haven’t seen so many dead bodies’

In the western state of Gujarat, many crematoriums in Surat, Rajkot, Jamnagar and Ahmedabad are operating around the clock with three to four times more bodies than normal.

In the diamond hub of Surat, Gujarat’s second-largest city, Sailor’s Kurukshetra crematorium and a second crematorium known as Umra have cremated more than 100 bodies a day under COVID-19 protocols over the last week, far in excess of the city’s official daily coronavirus death toll of approximately 25, according to interviews with workers.

 

Prashant Kabrawala, a trustee of Narayan Trust, which manages a third city crematorium called Ashwinikumar, declined to provide the number of bodies received under the virus’ protocols but said cremations there had tripled in recent weeks.

“I have been regularly going to the crematorium since 1987, and been involved in its day-to-day functioning since 2005, but I haven’t seen so many dead bodies coming for cremation in all these years,” even during an outbreak of the bubonic plague in 1994 and floods in 2006.

The iron frames inside another in Surat melted because there was no time to let the furnaces cool.

Bring your own wood

In Lucknow, the capital of the populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, data from the largest coronavirus-only crematorium, Baikunth Dham, shows double the number of bodies arriving on six different days in April than government data on COVID-19 deaths for the entire city.

“Until last month we were cremating 20-odd bodies per day… But since the beginning of April we have been handling over 80 bodies every day,” said a local official at the Ramnath Ghela Crematorium in the city.

Last week, Sandesh, a Gujarati newspaper, counted 63 bodies leaving a single COVID-19-only hospital for burial in the state’s largest city, Ahmedabad, on a day where government data showed 20 coronavirus deaths.

The chimney of one electric furnace in Ahmedabad cracked and collapsed after being in constant use for up to 20 hours every day for the past two weeks.

With waiting times of up to eight hours, Rajkot has set up a dedicated 24/7 control room to manage the flow in the city’s four crematoriums.

Government spokesmen in Gujarat did not respond to requests for comment.

The usual time to get to the ghat – a riverside embankment for cremations – from the main road via narrow lanes was usually three or four minutes, a resident said.

“Now it takes around 20 minutes. that’s how crowded the lanes are with people waiting to cremate the dead,” he said.

The figures from Lucknow do not take into account a second COVID-19-only crematorium in the city or burials in the Muslim community that makes up a quarter of the city’s population.

Crematorium head Azad, who goes by only one name, said the number of cremations under COVID-19 protocols had risen five-fold in recent weeks.

“We are working day and night,” he said. “The incinerators are running full time but still many people have to wait with the bodies for the last rites.”

A spokesman for the Uttar Pradesh government did not respond to a request for comment.

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