On Tuesday, as the second wave of Covid-19 continued surging across India, Gujarat reported 6,690 new cases and 67 deaths across the state – the highest single-day tallies since the start of the pandemic last year.
These official figures are grim in themselves, but the reality on the ground is much, much worse, video footage, news reports and interviews with those running crematoriums and burial grounds suggest.
In the past three days, almost every news outlet in Gujarat – be it print, television, English-language or Gujarati – has put the spotlight on the staggering mismatch between the government’s official Covid-19 death count and the number of dead being cremated or buried in cities.
In Ahmedabad, for instance, the state government had officially declared just 20 Covid-19 deaths on April 12. But Sandesh, a leading Gujarati newspaper, claimed that at least 63 people had died in just one government-run Covid-19 hospital in the city on the same day.
In a report published in Sandesh on Tuesday, the paper claimed that its journalists had arrived at the figure by camping outside Ahmedabad Civil Hospital’s 1,200-bed dedicated Covid-19 wing for 17 hours, counting every dead body being brought out of the morgue from midnight to 5 pm on April 12.
Last week, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani denied the state government was hiding the true Covid-19 death counts. He claimed Gujarat follows guidelines by the Indian Council of Medical Research that require Covid-19 to be listed as the cause of the death only when it is the primary cause. In case of patients with co-morbidities, if doctors determine that Covid-19 was the secondary cause of death, it is not attributed to the virus.
This is incorrect. The guidelines clearly state that even deaths where the primary cause wasn’t Covid-19 must be reported as Covid-19 deaths.
Journalists reporting from hospitals and crematoriums across Gujarat are certain the government is fudging the data. “The government is definitely hiding the real figures from the public,” said an Ahmedabad-based television journalist who did not wish to be named. “If Sandesh counted 63 bodies coming out of just one Covid hospital in Ahmedabad, and there are many Covid hospitals in the city, then how can there be just 20 Covid deaths?”
Zero deaths or 54?
Another striking example is from Jamnagar, where the government-run Guru Gobind Singh Hospital has been choked up with Covid-19 patients not just from Jamnagar district but also from the neighbouring districts of Morbi, Rajkot, Junagadh and Amreli.
While the state government claims there were zero Covid-19 deaths in Jamnagar on Tuesday and barely one death on Sunday, a local digital news publication, Khabar Gujarat, claimed around 100 people in Jamnagar died of the virus within 48 hours between April 10 and 11. On April 13, the news site reported 54 deaths in the city.
Similarly, news channel TV9 Gujarati reported on April 12 that in 24 hours, there were 64 deaths at Guru Gobind Singh Hospital, where a 1,200-bed Covid-19 facility has been set up.
A journalist working at Khabar Gujarat told Scroll.in that their calculation was based on the number of bodies cremated with Covid-19 protocols. “There are two cremation grounds in the city, and journalists get the numbers of the dead from them,” said Pari Ahir, the Khabar Gujarat reporter.
Scroll.in called officials at Ahmedabad’s civil hospital, Jamnagar’s Guru Gobind Singh Hospital as well as the civic corporations of both cities to seek their response to these reports, but the calls went unanswered.
Perhaps the most heart-rending reports of the dire state of Covid-19 deaths have been from Surat, where the state government officially recorded just 22 deaths each on April 12 and 13. The city’s crematoriums, however, claim they have been receiving nearly three to four times the number of bodies they usually receive in a day.
Ramnath Ghela and Kurukshetra Crematoriums, for instance, have had to cremate around 80 bodies per day in the past two weeks, instead of the 20 bodies they receive on an average. Surat’s Ashwini Kumar Crematorium used to get around 30 bodies a day before the second wave of Covid-19 began, but in the past two weeks it has cremated over 100 bodies a day in nine gas furnaces and four wooden pyres.
News channel TV9 reported on April 11 how at least 25 bodies were cremated together late at night in an open ground adjoining Surat’s Ramnath Ghela Crematorium, in order to shorten the long waiting period for cremations. The Surat Municipal Corporation had itself opened up this ground so that pyres could burn through the night.
According to some reports, the waiting period for cremations has been as long as eight to ten hours in the past few days, prompting the municipal corporation to re-open three defunct crematoriums that had been shut for several years, even though they do not have furnaces.
In at least two crematoriums in Surat, staff members have told news reporters that cremating bodies all day and night has caused the metal grills of some furnaces to melt. Reports also pointed out how crematoriums are running out of dry wood for pyres and using diesel and kerosene instead of ghee to light green wood on fire.
With such a high volume of deaths, mortuary vans have also been forced to ferry multiple bodies at a time to cremation grounds. The Times of India described it as bodies being transported “in bulk”, with one van carrying as many as seven bodies to Kurukshetra Crematorium in Surat on Monday.
“The four cremation grounds in Surat have the capacity to cremate around 700 bodies in a day, and right now even that is not enough,” said Pappanbhai Togadia, a Congress member and former opposition leader in the Surat Municipal Corporation. “There are waiting periods and they have had to open up maidans for cremation, so it is clear that the government is hiding true figures.”
Beyond Surat, other Gujarat cities are also seeing an unusually high number of deaths in cremation and burial grounds.
According to data shared by Ahmedabad’s Sunni Waqf Board, the city’s Musa Suhag burial ground for Sunni Muslims has already buried 70 bodies in just the first 12 days of April. In comparison, the graveyard had buried 73 people in all of January, 59 in February and 89 in March. Last year too, during the first wave of Covid-19, burial grounds in Ahmedabad had recorded an unprecedented surge in burials in April and May compared to the number of deaths in those months in 2019.
“Out of the 70 burials we had at Musa Suhag kabrastan this month, only seven are officially Covid deaths,” said Rizwan Kadri, the head of the city’s Sunni Waqf Board which manages burial grounds. “But the fact is, many more people have died and been buried, so what does that mean?”
Media on a warpath
Apart from questionable death statistics, Kadri also raised questions about the acute shortage of hospital beds, oxygen and medicines like Remdesivir across Gujarat, and the widely-shared social media videos of long lines of ambulances waiting for entry into Ahmedabad Civil Hospital. In one video, Zee News counted 21 ambulances waiting in line on Sunday night.
“If things were under control, as the government says, why would there be such a long line of ambulances outside a hospital?” said Kadri. Last week, he said, Ahmedabad’s Shifa Hospital ran out of oxygen for Covid-19 patients and was unable to procure more cylinders for days, until the media covered the case. “People are not getting care or medicines. There is a lot of anger among them about this.”
Gujarat’s media has tapped into this public anger and is relentlessly demanding accountability from the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party government. On Monday, for instance, Gujarati newspaper Divya Bhasker drew national attention when it published state BJP unit chief CR Paatil’s phone number as its front-page headline, urging readers to call him and ask him how he managed to procure 5,000 doses of the Remdevisir in Surat in the midst of a state-wide shortage of the drug.
An irked state has fought back by claiming, in the Gujarat High Court, that media reports about Covid-19 in the state are biased, exaggerated and sometimes fake.
The state’s advocate general made this claim in response to a suo moto public interest litigation initiated by the High Court with respect to the spiralling Covid-19 situation in Gujarat. Such a stand-off between a state government and the media is unusual, and on Tuesday, the High Court firmly rejected the Gujarat government’s allegations against the media.
“Every day there are eight to ten reports. This is not good,” the Court said. “These newspapers with their reputation would not be reporting baseless reports.”
Scroll.in made several calls to the state government’s health department but did not receive a response.