Doubts surround India’s official COVID-19 death toll

NEW DELHI (AFP) – India’s coronavirus death toll passed 250,000 yesterday but comparisons of official data with those from people on the frontlines suggested the true number is several times higher.

Across the vast nation, the devastating COVID-19 wave has overwhelmed hospitals with patients and crematoriums with bodies, and many coronavirus deaths are not being properly recorded as such.

Experts said the official quarter-million death count is hugely underreported. “Even three to four times would be an underestimate,” Anant Bhan, an independent health policy and bioethics researcher, told AFP.

Harrowing images from overwhelmed crematoriums, graveyards, and even makeshift funeral pyres have highlighted the scale of the crisis.

Bodies of suspected COVID-19 victims have also been seen floating down the holy Ganges river.

Bodies of people who died of COVID-19 are cremated at an open crematorium on the outskirts of Bengaluru, Karnataka state. PHOTO: AP

The discrepancies appear particularly stark in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state
of Gujarat.

In Rajkot in the west of the state, the official death toll between April 1-23 was 154, yet the city’s own health officials put it at 723.

And in Bharuch, the official count for the same period was just 23 but there were 600 funerals.

Gujarat’s chief minister Vijay Rupani insisted that the state was following guidelines from the Indian Council of Medical Research. Those said only deaths directly caused by COVID-19 can be recorded as such, but not fatalities triggered by co-morbidities – when a patient had heart problems and dies of cardiac arrest, for instance.

Even before the pandemic, just 22 per cent of the nearly 10 million annual deaths in India were medically certified, and experts say the spike in funerals points to the same happening with COVID-19 fatalities.

The surge has pushed the Aishbagh Burial Ground in Lucknow, capital of Uttar Pradesh state, to the brink. Hafiz Abdul Mateen from the graveyard told AFP it handled four to five burials a day before the pandemic.

“Today, 45 bodies of Covid victims have been buried here,” he said. “We’ve increased the number of gravediggers but that’s also not enough as these men are getting tired and falling sick.”

The official figures for deaths in some other states including Uttar Pradesh and Haryana also do not align with the number of funerals.