COVID-19 Has Overwhelmed India’s Ability to Dispose of Its Dead

June 17, 2020 Off By Shamani Joshi

The corpses of coronavirus victims are piling up in Delhi, as India's health infrastructure struggles to manage the hundreds of people who are currently dying from COVID-19 every day. Last week, the Indian Supreme Court described the city’s handling of bodies during the outbreak as “horrific.”

Several media reports had highlighted the issue’s urgency before the court intervened. Justices Ashok Bhushan, S K Kaul and M R Shah used the court order to condemn the “very sorry state of affairs in Delhi and inside its hospitals.”

The justices went on to suggest that Delhi’s hospitals had treated COVID patients “worse than animals."

“Look at the treatment meted out to patients,” reads the order. “The patients are crying and no one is looking after them. Relatives are not even informed, as reported by the media, after the death of patients.”

Much of this information has come from the city’s burial services. Three municipal corporations in Delhi attribute a total of 2,098 funerals to COVID-19, while the state’s official death toll stands at only 1,085.

After several articles claimed bodies were piling up in Delhi’s mortuaries, the matter was taken up by the Delhi High Court.

“Mishandling dead bodies is a violation of the Article 21 of India’s constitution, and also deeply hurts the dignity of families,” Advocate Gaurav Kumar Bansal, one of the lawyers who filed the petition, told VICE. “There is no doubt that India’s health infrastructure wasn’t prepared for this, but the court intervention and monitoring along with the National Disaster Management force is at least holding municipal corporations and those in-charge accountable.”

Then, there’s the issue of states such as Delhi and Gujarat running out of cemetery space to bury the dead.

In other concerning reports, India’s financial capital Mumbai—which has recently outpaced Wuhan’s infection tally—proved how overburdened mortuaries were when dead bodies at the government-run KEM hospital were left in hospital corridors.

When countries like Spain, the U.K. and Sweden reached the peak of their respective coronavirus curves, they used ice hockey rinks and refrigerated shipping containers as makeshift morgues. But in Mumbai a video from early May showed corpses wrapped in body bags lying in the same isolation ward as coronavirus patients.

At the time, the hospital said this measure was only taken while the staff tried to inform the dead patients’ relatives, even as many citizens complained about the unavailability of hospital beds.

In another incident, the dead body of an 82-year-old COVID-19 patient, who had been missing for eight days, was found inside a toilet in Mumbai.

There have also been several cases of hospitals mistakenly mixing up patients' bodies when returning them to families in states like Gujarat, Delhi and Hyderabad.

A few days ago in the North Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, municipal body authorities dumped the body of a man who died near the government official’s office in the city of Balrampur into a garbage truck in the presence of police officers. The incident led to the suspension of seven people involved in the process.

In May, authorities in Uttar Pradesh used a truck to transport at least 17 bodies of migrant workers who had died in a road accident along with their injured comrades to the eastern states of West Bengal and Jharkhand. It turned out that the district in which the accident took place had only two hearses.

In the south Indian state of Kerala, locals protested the burial of a Christian priest who had tested positive for coronavirus. Also in the south, in Tamil Nadu, a mob attacked the ambulance carrying a doctor who died after contracting COVID-19 from his patient.

“Even though crematorium operators are trying their level best, the stigma around coronavirus, lack of resources and awareness is leading to mismanagement,” Anshul Garg, a volunteer executive officer at the NGO Mokshda Paryavaran Evam Van Suraksha Samiti, which offers the service of eco-friendly green crematoriums, told VICE.

Garg has approached the Delhi High Court and offered 16 green crematoriums in Delhi to help dispose of the bodies. He explains that the state initially created a bottleneck when they designated specific crematoriums for coronavirus patients, but things have improved since the intervention of the courts.

The Delhi High Court’s order has extended crematorium hours and also put in place a process by which the hospitals must return bodies to families within two hours. After that, families are expected to contact a funeral home or crematorium facility within 12 hours.

“I think dead bodies are being mishandled right now due to a lack of awareness,” said Bansal. “Indians are still very scared about catching the infection if they touch or stand near the dead body.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared that dead bodies do not pose a risk of transmitting the infection since the spread usually happens through air droplets—noting, however, that professionals conducting the autopsy should be careful about not touching the deceased coronavirus patient’s lungs.

The Delhi government is now scrambling to revise its communication channels and has set up a so-called Death Audit Committee to better track fatality rates. They have also promised to increase their hospital bed capacity by turning railway compartments and banquet halls into makeshift isolation wards.

The union ministry has also relaxed its guidelines for handing bodies back to families, saying they do not have to wait for lab results to confirm the infection before discharging the bodies.

At the time of writing, India has the fourth highest number of coronavirus cases in the world, with 344,527 confirmed cases and 9,924 reported deaths.

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