Image: PTI

By Adeeti Singh

The horrors of Covid-19 are far from over. The entire system has failed, every link in the chain broken. People are lined up outside ‘emergency care’ hospitals waiting for hours to get the care they need, and some our dying while waiting, gasping for oxygen. Indians are waiting not just in life, but even after an unfair and untimely death claims them, owing to the lack of space in cremation/burial grounds.

Amid the fragility of our overall healthcare infrastructure, made less accessible for millions over decades, lies the dystopic state of Uttar Pradesh, which has recorded a total of 11,678 Covid deaths so far but a ‘mere 265’ officially, within the entire state in the past 24 hours according to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare’s bulletin.

The reputed Hindi newspaper, Hindustan, reported on the undercounting in Uttar Pradesh’s Meerut city with approximately 171 bodies that were cremated following Covid protocol in the past one week from April 20 to April 26 but the government recorded only 19. On April 26, while the district records stated two deaths only, national data reported 11 deaths, a total of 42 people were cremated. On April 25, 23 Covid bodies were cremated but the national data recorded a massive mismatch with only 5 deaths. On April 23, the district report recorded zero deaths but, in actuality, 20 bodies were cremated.

In the month of April, Ghaziabad has recorded only two Covid-19 deaths according to some media reports but the ground reality disproves this number. SabrangIndia, doing its bit to collate data from the ground, actually contacted the Hindon cremation ground (Mohan Nagar, Ghaziabad) to comprehend the actual number of Covid deaths over the last one week. When asked about the waiting time to cremate a Covid infected deceased person on April 28, one staff member said, “There is a long waiting ma’am, call in the evening. There are about 30 ambulances waiting before you.”

He further said that over the past one week, around 80 to 90 Covid-19 bodies have piled up at Hindon for their last rituals but failed to provide a definite number. The pressure on Hindon increased manifold because of a sudden spike in the death rate, and the Indirapuram cremation ground helped in bringing down the rush by taking the load of non-covid-19 bodies, according to The Times of India.

In Bareilly, according to The Wire, there was only one Covid death on April 15. Based on the government data, from about April 21 to April 28, the death figures stood at 9. SabrangIndia went further and spoke to a worker at the City Shamshan Bhoomi, who informed the publication that on an average, 30 Covid-19 bodies are being cremated daily over the past few days but there is no waiting period as they are equipped to handle the load.

On April 17, (The Wire), the health department said that there were four Covid-19 related deaths in Bareilly. However, according to the cremation ground records, there were seven cases at the City Shamshan Bhoomi, and six at the Sanjay Nagar cremation ground.

Based on the Covid bulletin, around 35 deaths have been recorded in Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh in April. But as remote villages and smaller districts do not get enough coverage, the numbers are likely to be higher. Deepak, a resident of Patela village, Jaunpur district told SabrangIndia, “The situation in the village is not good. Since April 14, somebody known is succumbing to the virus. Lalchandji’s daughter in-law passed away, Doctor Ahmed Khan’s younger brother died and Iliyas’s wife also passed away. There has been no respite since April 14.” But other media organisations reported from official handouts that said that Jaunpur recorded zero deaths on April 15, 18 and 22.

On being asked why these numbers are going unreported, Anirudh said that some are also dying due to other illnesses but clarified that these above-mentioned people died of Covid. “There is any way no Covid-19 testing that can be done here. People are very scared. Everybody is sitting inside their homes, not trying to socialise”, he said. Adding to the list of tragedies, Shama Bano from Varanasi, told SabrangIndia that her brother Rehan Khan, cremated a stranger from Chunar town as his own family members did not reside with him. They could not attend his last rites.

As significantly pointed out by Anirudh, many people in villages are not even getting tested before losing their battle to Covid, and expectedly so, these numbers remain missing from official records. Based on a report, people in remote UP villages are “dropping dead like flies”. Professor Gopal Nath, who hails from a village on the Jaunpur-Varanasi border and heads the Virus Research and Diagnostic Lab at the Institute of Medical Sciences, Banaras Hindu University, told Scroll, “The community spread is so bad in the villages that people don’t know what to do or where to go…Also, testing such huge numbers is difficult because where is the health staff to collect so many samples.”

In Lucknow, the death toll is 13, in the last 24 hours, but the real numbers are gallingly high. Bhaisa Kund cremation ground’s priest, KK Pandey spoke to SabrangIndia while expressing his unconceivable grief. He said, “The numbers here are very high, I cannot tell you how bad the situation here is. I am too disturbed. I start work at 6 A.M and my day goes on till 11 to sometimes midnight. I have never seen something like this in 30 years.”

He could not give us a rough estimate of Covid deaths at the ghats but he said that the numbers are far greater than the ones reported. When asked the reason behind this, he said, “What can be done? The government is helpless it seems. There is no facility. There are no vaccines.”

Pandey told SabrangIndia that his own sister-in-law is critical and might not survive because of oxygen shortage. “The primary issue in Lucknow is oxygen. There is acute shortage. Her levels are dropping, we cannot do anything. We have kept her in the house, where will we take her. There is a big black market, one cylinder is worth thirty thousand, forty thousand, I cannot afford it.”

The Lallantop’s reporter, asked a Kanpur based resident who had come to cremate one of his relatives, about the under reporting in deaths and that only 3 cases had been recorded on April 26. To this, he said, “Madam I got the 48th number for cremation. My slot came up around 2 P.M. This department (of the cremation ground) that we are standing in front of deals only with Covid bodies.” Clearly, the numbers are soaring every day but don’t see the light of day in government records.

A photojournalist, Arun Kumar shared a video (TRIGGER WARNING: Disturbing visuals, viewer discretion advised) of 38 bodies being cremated simultaneously at Kanpur’s Bhairav Ghat on April 23 with new bodies being brought in every minute.

In Jhansi, about 8 deaths have been recorded in the past 24 hours with the total number at around 45 but sources believe the tally is higher. Pradeep Jain Aditya, former Union minister from the Congress and a former MP of the Jhansi constituency told The Wire, “No data of people dying in nursing homes is coming out, the real data is also being hidden.”

Agra has just recorded 4 deaths as of April 27 but the crematoria and ambulance services are so overburdened with the sudden number of deaths, that a resident had to tie his father’s body to his car’s roof and drive to a crematorium in Mokshadham after failing to find an ambulance, as per India Today. After a few hours, he performed the last rites.

Infrastructure that is failing us, killing us

India’s experience of the second wave of coronavirus is proving to be the single largest moral and structural failure of the government. Amid such catastrophic shortage, Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has said that there is no dearth of any resource and that serious legal action will be taken against those who are spreading misinformation.

But his statement, as triumphalist as it may sound, does not seem to settle in the face of the Allahabad High Court’s scathing observation that has recently held that ‘nothing remarkable’ seems to have been achieved on the front of public health care to the satisfaction of the people, according to a SabrangIndia report.

A resident (wanted to remain anonymous) of Bhadohi, some 45 kilometres short of Varanasi, who helps his father in arranging for oxygen cylinders and medicines for people in the city, told SabrangIndia, “Outside the major cities in Uttar Pradesh, the situation is far worse than can be imagined. Large families are severely affected. There is lack of medicines, no infrastructure has been set up and getting to nearby cities is pointless because they also lack resources.”

He said that people with the typical coronavirus symptoms are not even aware if they have contracted the infection and continue to go on with their lives. By the time the symptoms start getting serious, and they get some medical attention, it turns fatal. “Shortage of tests coupled with the lax attitude of the government has created a situation where people don’t even know that they are ill. Even situations where medicine and oxygen can save lives, lack of it has led to far too many deaths. Family members are torn between caring for themselves and their family members. Often while attempting to save some family member like finding a hospital or procuring medicines, they end up getting fatally infected.”

The tragedy that is Uttar Pradesh can be best understood from the responses it’s chief minister has offered to his dying people: crackdown, arrests, threats and intimidation. Callously proceeding with panchayat elections in the state and exposing teachers and teaching staff to Covid’s vulnerabilities, 135 such recently just died! To make things worse, are the official statements made by no less than the Solicitor General of India, Tushar Mehta, this regime’s go to man for defending executive state inaction. Just recently, he almost nonchalantly told the Supreme Court of India that in that state “there are no beds” for the sick and dying. Culpability in this state surely needs to begin at the very top.

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