In Delhi, number of COVID funerals overshoot official death toll

Over 4,500 fatalities do not find mention in the Delhi government records.

May 15, 2021 07:21 pm | Updated May 16, 2021 09:38 am IST - New Delhi

Cremation of COVID-19 victims at Nigambodh Ghat cremation ground, in New Delhi on May 15, 2021.

Cremation of COVID-19 victims at Nigambodh Ghat cremation ground, in New Delhi on May 15, 2021.

Over 4,500 people, who lost their lives in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, have slipped through the cracks of Delhi government death records over the last 24 days.

A dovetailing of funerals with government death toll statistics between April 18 and May 11 throws up a cumulative discrepancy of 4,783; the figures varied every day with the difference between them as high as 336 at its peak and 32 at its lowest.

According to municipal records, 12,833 COVID patients were laid to rest during the 24-day period with 534 funerals a day or 22 every 60 minutes being recorded. The Delhi government however, registered 8,050 COVID deaths during the same interval, conceding a daily average of 335 COVID deaths or 13 per hour.

The BJP-led civic bodies attribute the mismatch to the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government’s attempt to “deliberately hide” the actual number of COVID deaths on a daily basis by suppressing death statistics and excluding suspected coronavirus patients from the tally.

“The government has been hiding (death) figures since the pandemic started. Not only did they ignore our request for help in procuring firewood for cremations so citizens do not face inconvenience, they are sitting on funds meant to pay salaries of doctors and sanitation workers engaged everywhere from our COVID hospitals to funeral venues,” Jai Prakash, mayor, North MCD, alleged.

A senior MCD official, cited other “technical reasons” for the mismatch.

“There are two main reasons: the government excluding suspected COVID cases, patients with life-threatening illnesses and non-Delhi residents from the death tally. For us, the last rites of all designated COVID bodies are performed as per protocol irrespective of these reasons,” the official said.

“The other reason is dead bodies of COVID patients are not being laid to rest on the day of their death. Many times families refuse to claim such bodies for one reason or another; these are then brought to funeral venues for last rites in batches of multiple bodies by the police, NGOs and Good Samaritans,” the official said.

The Delhi government denies such charges outright and states that the mismatch is commonly due to deaths of COVID patients occurring either on their way to hospital or outside one because they could not get admission on time.

“We are completely transparent in all matters and especially the pandemic, all deaths are accounted for. In many instances, patients also die due to comorbidities aggravated by COVID after testing negative either at a hospital or at home,” a Delhi government source said.

Responding to allegations of the mismatch in funeral figures and the COVID death toll recorded by the Delhi government, Health Minister Satyendar Jain told reporters on April 29 that the government had kept everything “transparent”.

“This is not the time to politicise things. Six months ago, the same concern was seen but nevertheless was proved that the numbers were accurate. First and foremost, nobody here wants even a single life lost. Secondly, we do not have any right to conceal the numbers. The death certificates are being drafted constantly, and if the fatality is due to COVID-19, it is being duly mentioned in them,” Mr. Jain said.

The cumulative death toll since the outbreak last year breached the 20,000-mark on May 11, standing at 20,010; 63% of these fatalities were cremated or buried in the last 24 days alone.

On April 30, the gap between funerals and the day’s government death tally was the highest at 336 — the civic bodies logged 711 funerals against the government’s figure of 375 COVID deaths over the previous 24 hours.

The only occasion on which the number of funerals performed by civic bodies and the number of deaths recorded by the government seemed to converge was on May 11 when 379 last rites took place and the government noted 347 COVID deaths — a shortfall of 32 deaths.

The mismatch in funeral and government death records has been consistent throughout: 129 on April 18, 183 on April 21, 228 on April 24 and the highest, 336, April 30. In May, it was the highest so far on May 1: 285 and slipped to double-digits for the first time on May 7 at 66.

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