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More ‘deaths by illness’ in Ahmedabad than Covid as crematoriums see rise in ‘bimari’ funerals

As crematoriums struggle with rise in funerals, workers say there are many deaths being tagged as 'death by illness' instead of 'due to Covid'. Families allege govt trying to keep numbers low.

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Ahmedabad: Makena Powella spent up to five hours Saturday waiting at Ellisbridge crematorium in Ahmedabad to conduct his uncle’s funeral. Finally, he set up the wooden pyre himself. But what added salt to injury was the fact that crematorium officials registered the death as ‘bimari’, one caused by illness and not specifically Covid-19.

“My uncle died of Covid. We were not allowed to take his dead body home for final prayers. As if taking away our right to grieve was [not] enough, they now want to write him off as a ‘madgi\bimari’ (death by illness). The cremation authorities have registered him as a patient death due to illness. Why not register him as a Covid death?” said the visibly angry Powella.

A worker at Ellisbridge crematorium, on the condition of anonymity, told ThePrint they had been instructed to list all Covid deaths as deaths due to illness. “We have been asked to not write Covid as the cause of death … instead write ‘death by illness’ everywhere. You know why they are doing it, don’t ask me why.”

However, an official with the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation explained to ThePrint that this instruction is for a more practical reason. “Class 3 and 4 employees are not educated, hence don’t have any understanding. Their work of registration is purely mechanical, hence we have told them to write the ‘illness’ as the cause of death,” the official said on the condition of anonymity.

ThePrint had visited six crematoriums in the city to see what the situation was. Workers at these crematoriums had similar stories to tell. According to them, Deputy Commissioner of Health Mehul Acharya had issued verbal instructions to list Covid deaths as ‘death by illness’.

ThePrint reached Acharya by phone but did not receive a response until the time of publishing this report.

Powella alleges this is the government trying to “hide the number of Covid deaths from the media”.

“They are lying to us every single day and we have to suffer in silence. [For] how long?”.

According to state government data, the daily number of deaths in Ahmedabad went up from three on 1 April to 25 on 16 April.

Following reports of discrepancies in the Covid deaths being reported, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani Sunday said the state was not under reporting numbers and that it was adhering to ICMR protocols. He added that the death audit committee was investigating the matter.

Also see: In Ahmedabad, wait for last rites gets longer as bodies pile up at crematoriums

Long wait at crematoriums

With crematoriums running at full capacity since 12 April, Powella’s plight isn’t uncommon. On the day, the state recorded over 6,000 cases, the highest daily spike at the time.

“We were just talking among ourselves … if this is the beginning of Kalyug, we don’t want to live to see the end,” said a person at the Ellisbridge crematorium who had been waiting for four hours to cremate a relative.

Hospital workers move a dead Covid patient, to be transported to a crematorium | Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Hospital workers move a dead Covid patient to be transported to a crematorium | Praveen Jain | ThePrint

A similar scene unfolded at the Isanpur crematorium where Jitendra Tomar, a 35-year-old resident had come to cremate his aunt, another Covid casualty.

“First, the hospital gave us her body four hours after she died. Her body was lying in a queue on the floor next to us for five hours. We were supposed to cremate her body in the electric furnace, but ultimately, had to perform her last rites in the wooden pyre.”

Humko toh mar hi jana chahiye, hamari koi value hi nahi hai (We should die. We are not valued as citizens). Even after death, my aunt did not get any respect,” said a distraught Tomar. His aunt’s death, like the others, was registered as one due to illness.

An ambulance worker with the Civil Hospital told ThePrint that he had seen over 200 bodies in the morgue. “Hospitals are releasing dead bodies slowly so that the numbers don’t seem too big,” he alleged.

Also read: Govt to send 25 doctors, 75 paramedics from central police forces to Ahmedabad Covid facility

How many Covid deaths were there?

According to the state government, Ahmedabad had recorded 180 deaths between 1 and 15 April.

But workers at six crematoriums ThePrint visited — Isanpur crematorium, Juna Vadaj crematorium, Thaltej crematorium, Hatkeshwar crematorium, Jamalpur crematorium and the Ellisbridge crematorium — peg the number higher.

When ThePrint reached the registrar at Thaltej crematorium, they responded, saying, “I am not permitted to talk to you … please go away. If anyone even happens to see you standing here, I could lose my job. The repercussions of talking to the media are dangerous and nobody wants to lose their job in the middle of a crisis. Speak to our boss Mehul Acharya, he will give you all the answers.”

At the Jamalpur crematorium, workers said they had registered 100 deaths between 15 and 16 April. Thirty of these are believed to be Covid related, all of which were recorded on 16 April alone.

Relatives of Covid patients who have died wait for their turn to conduct the last rites at a crematorium in Ahmedabad | Praveen Jain | ThePrint
Relatives of Covid patients wait for their turn to conduct the last rites at a crematorium in Ahmedabad | Praveen Jain | ThePrint

The Ellisbridge crematorium, which is located behind the government-run SVP Hospital, has seen an increase in cremations by about three times, workers claimed. Numbers shared with ThePrint indicated that about 20 deaths were recorded on 16 April, of which about 14 were Covid deaths.

A worker at Hatkeshwar said that about 15 deaths were recorded on 16 April, of which about 10 were Covid-related. At Thaltej crematorium, a worker said six Covid bodies were brought in on 16 April. The Isanpur crematorium saw over 45 bodies come in on 16 April, 16 of which were Covid cases.

At Juna Vadaj crematorium, 14 Covid bodies and 25 non-Covid bodies were brought in 16 April.

This indicates that across the six crematoriums, 84 Covid deaths were recorded on 16 April. The state bulletin for the day reported 25 Covid deaths in the city.

ThePrint also spoke to the in-charges at two cemeteries about the number of deaths they’ve witnessed. At Musa Suhag Kabristan in Shahibaug, seven Covid bodies had come while at the Chartod Kabristan in Gomtipura, six had come since the start of April.

Also read: How not to ‘Kumbh’ amid Covid spike — this Gujarat town shows the way during Navratri

‘Do you know what it’s like to register deaths for 8 hrs continuously?’

For crematorium workers, dealing with these increasing numbers isn’t just a mechanical increase in workload. One registrar at one of the crematoriums says it’s a constant onslaught of despair.

“I work for eight hours non-stop. You know what it feels like to continuously register dead people for eight hours? We have lost our appetites,” he told ThePrint. He now holds Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who hails from the state, responsible for the situation.

“We brought this upon ourselves. We supported Modi, didn’t we? We thought we had gifted a messiah to the country when he became the Prime Minister. Look at what he has done to his own people,” the 60-year-old said.

A cremation worker at Jamalpur said, “We have lost count of the number of dead bodies cremated. We simply don our PPE suits and keep working.”

Talking to ThePrint while setting a pyre alight, he added, “Summer is here, so the temperatures are soaring. We work round the clock and it starts getting difficult to breath in these plastic kits due to the fire and smoke.”

A distraught Makena Powella at the cremation of his uncle, who died of Covid-19, in Ahmedabad in April 2021 | Praveen Jain | ThePrint
A distraught Makena Powella at the cremation of his uncle, who died of Covid-19, in Ahmedabad in April 2021 | Praveen Jain | ThePrint

Jitu Makwana, a 30-year-old administration staff at the Thaltej crematorium had passed away after contracting Covid. He was unable to get to a hospital on time. Speaking to ThePrint, his widow is now demanding compensation for his death.

“I have two small children to raise. Who will support them now? My husband was the sole breadwinner of the family … with him gone, we have been left to fend for ourselves. In such a time when people abandon those with Covid, my husband was burning those dead.”

The crematorium in-charge at Jamalpur Shamshan told ThePrint they do not have any union or association to turn to for help or any safety cover provided by their management. “In fact, for undertakers working on wooden pyres do not get any salary at all. They have to rely on the tips that families give them.”

An official with the city corporation told ThePrint, “There are no financial aid facilities for these people. This matter can only be looked into if the authorities higher up take interest in it.”

(Edited by Manasa Mohan)

Also read: Not only daily cases, Covid-19 fatality rates rising too in Gujarat, UP, Chhattisgarh


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