New Delhi (AFP)
India’s coronavirus death toll topped 250,000 on Wednesday, but comparisons of official data with those on the frontlines suggest the true number is several times higher.
Across the vast country, the devastating wave of Covid-19 has overwhelmed patient hospitals and body crematoria, and many coronavirus deaths are not properly recorded as such.
Experts say the official tally of a quarter of a million deaths is grossly underestimated.
“Even three to four times would be an underestimate,” Anant Bhan, independent researcher in health policy and bioethics, told AFP.
Heartbreaking images of overwhelmed crematoriums, cemeteries and even makeshift funeral pyres have highlighted the scale of the crisis.
Bodies of suspected Covid-19 victims have also been seen floating on the sacred river Ganges.
The gaps seem particularly marked in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat.
In Rajkot, in the western part of the state, the official death toll between April 1 and April 23 was 154, but the city’s health officials estimated it at 723.
And in Bharuch, the official count for the same period was only 23 but there were 600 funerals.
Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani insisted the state was following the guidelines of the Indian Council for Medical Research.
These say that only deaths directly caused by Covid-19 can be recorded as such, but not deaths triggered by co-morbidities – when a patient has heart problems and dies from cardiac arrest, for example.
Even before the pandemic, only 22% of India’s nearly 10 million annual deaths were medically certified, and experts say the funeral spike indicates the same with deaths linked to Covid-19.
– “Massive under-declaration” –
The outbreak has pushed Aishbagh cemetery in Lucknow, the state capital of Uttar Pradesh, to the brink of collapse.
Hafiz Abdul Mateen of the cemetery told AFP he was handling four to five burials a day before the pandemic.
“Today 45 bodies of Covid victims have been buried here,” he said.
“We have increased the number of gravediggers, but it is not enough either because these men are tired and get sick. “
Official death figures in some other states, including Uttar Pradesh and Haryana, also do not match the number of funerals.
Media reports have also suggested that the official figures for the capital New Delhi are also well below reality.
“Our estimate is that 50 percent of Covid-19 deaths are unregistered by the government,” Jitender Singh Shanty, head of one of Delhi’s 26 crematoriums, told AFP.
Health economist and researcher Rijo M. John described the situation as a “battle for data, data sharing and transparency”.
But a spokesman for the ruling party in India, Bharatiya Janata, denied allegations of undercount or political motives behind the inadequate death toll.
“It is not possible for anyone to hide the numbers at this time and at this time,” RP Singh told AFP.
Despite the assurances, some are not convinced.
“There is massive underreporting of deaths and cases,” said Sonalika Sahay, 22, a student.
“The government says the positivity rate is going down and the situation is improving. How is that possible when corpses are thrown into rivers by the dozen? “
© 2021 AFP