COVID-19 second wave: Demand for death audit in Karnataka gains momentum

The demand for an audit of all deaths reported in Karnataka over the past four months to ascertain the ‘real’ toll in the second wave of COVID-19, along the lines of a similar exercise recently conducted in Bihar, has started gaining momentum. This comes days after Chief Minister B.S. Yediyurappa announced compensation of ₹1 lakh to Below Poverty Line (BPL) families that have lost adult members to the virus.

Public health experts, non-government organisations and the political opposition argued that amidst allegations of under-counting of deaths in Karnataka, such an audit is necessary to ensure that all eligible families avail of compensation.

“How will family members avail of benefits of welfare schemes and ex-gratia if the deaths are not declared as COVID-19 deaths,” said Karnataka Pradesh Congress Committee (KPCC) President D.K. Shivakumar.

According to public health practitioner Dr. Sylvia Karpagam, clear gaps have been identified in the death data capture mechanism. “Several home isolation deaths are not being reported. Till almost mid-May, RT-PCR negative but HRCT scan positive cases, estimated to be 30% of total RT-PCR tests, were not counted as COVID-19 deaths,” she said.

Dr. H. V. Vasu, convenor, Karnataka COVID-19 Volunteers Team, claimed that anecdotal evidence suggests “deliberate suppression of death count, even when deaths were reported from within the system”. This is an allegation that the political Opposition has also been consistently making, one that the State government has denied. “They are fighting the data, not the virus”, Mr. Shivakumar had recently tweeted.

According to A Suresh, State Secretary, Ambedkar Dalit Sangharsh Samiti, which organised burial ground and crematoria workers across the State, there was a large gap between the death toll declared by the State government and the number of bodies coming for burial and cremation from April to mid-May. But later this was corrected, he said.

A senior health department official conceded that there were gaps in the capture of death data, but denied ‘deliberate suppression’. “Health and civic officials were also tasked with the vaccination drive. The number of cases during the peak of the second wave was overwhelming, as a result of which there was no adequate follow-up of all patients. The HRCT scan issue persisted for over a month, after which we created a mechanism to include them in the case and death count. In rural areas, there may be under-counting of deaths due to lack of adequate testing as well, especially in SARI and ILI cases,” said the official.

Other States have taken corrective measures. On June 10, Bihar added 3,951 ‘backlog’ deaths to its toll following a nearly month-long death audit by the district administrations of the state after the Patna High Court on May 17 flagged discrepancies. Maharashtra added 12,909 ‘backlog’ deaths to the toll between June 1 and June 14.

Over the last three months, there have been media reports of wide discrepancies in actual deaths and the official death toll attributed to COVID-19 in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana, apart from Karnataka.

“Karnataka was the first State to declare compensation for COVID-19 deaths for BPL families. A death audit after this announcement will only lead to a rush to get all deaths attributed to COVID-19, leading to corruption and misuse of public funds,” said a highly-placed bureaucrat.

Public health experts and activists said that this cannot be an excuse to not conduct a much-needed death audit, which will also help frame policies during subsequent waves of COVID-19.

The compensation amount announced by Karnataka has also been criticised. Leader of Opposition Siddaramaiah has termed the amount ‘inadequate’ and demanded it be raised to ₹5 lakh.

‘Count every death’

Several organisations in Karnataka have come together to launch a campaign called ‘In Memory of Loved Ones’ with the motto ‘Count every death, share every loss’.

It seeks to honour the memory of all those who succumbed to COVID-19, both directly and indirectly. “There was severe under-counting of deaths during the pandemic, denying them even dignity. We cannot let our loved ones be forgotten: each has a name, each must be documented, remembered and continued to be loved. This will also help future generations comprehend the severity of the crisis we are facing today,” according to a statement from the campaign.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 9:00:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/covid-19-second-wave-demand-for-death-audit-in-karnataka-gains-momentum/article34831087.ece

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