New Delhi: At the Qabristan Ahle Islam, a burial ground for Muslims in central Delhi, supervisor Mohammed Shamim reels out some sombre statistics as he talks about the fresh Covid surge.
“Last year, the highest number of dead bodies (of Covid patients) we received in a day was 18. But this year, from just 2-3 bodies on 4 April, we are receiving at least 10 to 15 Covid patients’ corpses in a day,” he said.
The existing burial area set aside for Covid patients — enough to bury 150 bodies — may not be sufficient if the number of fatalities keeps increasing as it is, he said.
“I have asked the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to allocate another burial ground in case we run short,” he added.
Staff at the Nigambodh Ghat, the capital’s largest cremation facility, offered a similar account. In the first two weeks of April, staff at the ghat said, they cremated 219 Covid patients. The highest was Thursday, when the ghat received 44 Covid patients, they added.
“In February and March, we used to get only 3 to 4 Covid patients’ bodies in a day. From the beginning of this month till now, we have received 219 Covid dead bodies,” Suman Kumar Gupta, the chief convenor of the Nigambodh Ghat, told ThePrint.
But Gupta said they are prepared to handle the surge. Showing three huge warehouses full of wood for funeral pyres, Gupta added, “Even if we receive 200 bodies in a day, we have it all under control.”
“Last April, we handled 25-30 (Covid) bodies daily. This time, too, we have already begun receiving 30 Covid (patients’) bodies every day,” said Vishal Sinha, the ghat’s head manager.
At funeral sites around the capital, the authorities have reported a steep rise in the number of Covid patients being brought for cremation or burial amid the current wave. During the last Covid peak in November, Delhi witnessed 2,612 deaths (in the month).
The current Covid wave in India has been blazing through Delhi at a frightening pace. According to the bulletin released Friday evening, Delhi recorded 141 deaths in the preceding 24 hours, taking the total tally to 12,649. This is the highest single-day spurt in Covid-19 deaths in the national capital since the onset of the pandemic. The bulletin released Thursday recorded 121 deaths, with over 30,000 new infections in the preceding two days.
In light of the growing toll, the Delhi government issued a fresh order Friday where it directed district magistrates to arrange hearse vans for hospitals if they fall short of them.
The order, a copy of which has been accessed by ThePrint, seeks to reiterate the guidelines issued by the central government on the management of Covid patients’ corpses.
The order also included a list of 11 hospitals — one each for 11 Delhi districts — with instructions that they post at least two nursing personnel round the clock with each hearse van to meet the growing burden of work.
Speaking to ThePrint on the condition of anonymity, a senior medical official at the South Delhi Municipal Corporation (SDMC) said, “At this rate, we are expecting at least 200 bodies/day per crematorium in a week’s time, the way things are going.”
Altogether, 21 sites — including burial grounds and crematoria — are authorised to hold Covid funerals in Delhi.
A surge in recent days
At Nigambodh, as at other funeral grounds, there are demarcated zones for Covid cremations. Six CNG incinerators have been designated for Covid patients, but these machines can handle only four bodies in a day, at a span of two hours between each cremation.
Many families prefer furnaces over the traditional funeral pyres as they are quicker, and the ashes are handed to them within two hours, said Gupta. However, according to him, the furnaces require constant fixing as the incinerators are nearly 15 years old and get overheated easily.
“Most of the time, the wait gets extended as we are required to fix one thing or the other in the machine,” said Gupta.
The supervisors at the Punjabi Bagh cremation site refused to disclose the number of Covid bodies they have been receiving. When ThePrint visited Thursday, staff was busy setting up makeshift cremation beds for coronavirus fatalities. One of the workers, who didn’t want to be named, said they had begun making extra cremation areas underground. The Punjabi Bagh Shamshan Ghat currently has a capacity to cremate 17 bodies at a time.
Dharamveer Pandey, the supervisor at the Lodhi Road Shamshan Ghat, which held funerals for 17 Covid patients Tuesday, said, “This week, we have been receiving at least 8 or 9 Covid bodies in a day, unlike in February, when no Covid bodies came in for almost two weeks.”
At a relatively smaller cremation ground in Geeta Colony, staff pegged their recent surge to the fact that they don’t cremate Covid patients, which they said makes relatives of non-Covid fatalities feel safer to approach them.
“Since the Delhi government designated Nigambodh as one of the cremation sites for Covid bodies, more people with other causes of death have come to us for cremation,” said Sanjay Sharma, head of the Geeta Colony Shamshan Ghat.
Dr B.S. Hazarika, the chief medical officer at SDMC, said the six crematoria and graveyards in the area — including the Punjabi Bagh West, Sarai Kale Khan, and Lodhi Road crematoria, and the ITO Firozshah Muslim Kabristan — have space to hold the funeral of 174 Covid patients a day.
“So far, we do have enough space, but I can’t deny there has been a lot of rush once again,” he added. The number of Covid bodies at some crematoriums and burial sites, he said, has risen to 35 per day from just 2-4.
At the Mangol Puri cemetry in Rohini, in-charge Sanjay (who only uses his first name) said they had gone from receiving no Covid bodies to at least three a day, with a Muslim burial site in the area also reporting three Covid funerals daily over the past six days.
(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)