New Delhi: Around 11 am Wednesday, a large goods truck pulled up outside the mortuary at Dr Bhim Rao Ambedkar Memorial (BRAM) Hospital in Raipur, Chhattisgarh’s largest Covid-19 facility. But the truck was not meant to carry any goods from the hospital.
As it rolled in, hospital workers in PPE suits approached it and pulled open the rear door — to start loading dead bodies. They packed in as many as 10 bodies, of patients who died after contracting Covid, as the bereaved families watched on.
“I did not want my father’s body to be taken like this. But the hospital authorities said there is a shortage of hearse vans so I had to agree,” said Aryan as he watched his father’s body being dragged onto the truck.
With Covid cases and deaths touching new highs in Chhattisgarh every day, the state capital has become the epicentre of the virus.
According to Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) data, as of 13 April, Chhattisgarh has recorded a total of 4,71,994 cases — with 5,187 deaths and 3,57,668 recoveries. Of this, Raipur has been the highest contributor with 26,270 active cases.
Chhattisgarh also reported the third highest number of cases in the country Tuesday after Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh — with 15,121 new cases. It is also among the five states that are contributing 68 per cent of India’s total active cases. The state also reported the second highest number of deaths after Maharashtra Tuesday.
ThePrint also reached Raipur Chief Medical Officer Meera Baghel and Principal Secretary Renu Pillai via phone but there was no response until the time of publishing this report.
Why the authorities are choosing goods trucks
Half an hour before the goods truck even reached the BRAM Hospital Wednesday, a long queue had already formed outside its mortuary.
“Ten bodies will be taken together to Naya Raipur in this truck as there aren’t enough hearse vans to take bodies separately on different trips. Yesterday (Tuesday) also, this truck had come and taken seven bodies to Naya Raipur,” said Yogesh Kumar, mortuary supervisor, BRAM Hospital. Naya Raipur is a township 20 km from Raipur city.
On Monday, dead bodies had piled up outside this mortuary. A video of it went viral, forcing the authorities to start the process of clearing the mortuary. But workers at the mortuary said despite trucks being called in, there are still a lot of bodies left inside.
“Bodies have to be released slowly because crematoria are also overburdened. Number of pending bodies in the mortuary is not reducing because the deaths are not going down,” added Kumar.
“From Tuesday we are sending out two trucks, one to BRAM and the other to AIIMS (Raipur), because these are the biggest hospitals in the state. We have a total of eight hearse vans and a few private vehicles. But if we give one hearse van to one family then these vans will be making too many trips. That is why it was decided that we will send some bodies to Naya Raipur from AIIMS and BRAM in these trucks,” said Pulak Bhattacharya, Additional Municipal Commissioner, Raipur.
Not just the trucks, even hearse vans are carrying multiple bodies. “Each hearse van is being loaded with 2-3 bodies and taken to different cremation grounds as assigned by the municipal authorities. But there aren’t enough hearse vans, which is why multiple bodies are being loaded onto each vehicle,” said Kumar.
The trauma for families
For families, however, the indignity in death of their loved ones has been difficult to process.
“They are dragging the bodies like animals from the mortuary to the truck and then from the truck onto the funeral pyre. There is no respect for human life,” said Umesh Kumar Vishwakarma. His father’s body was unloaded from the truck onto a funeral pyre in Naya Raipur.
However, authorities at the cremation ground in Naya Raipur said they insisted that the bodies are not piled on top of each other.
“I made it clear to the municipal authorities that my men will not pick up bodies piled on top of each other. These are human bodies, not vegetable sacks. After that they separated the bodies in this truck and stopped piling them together,” said Komal Singh Rajput, supervisor at Naya Raipur cremation ground.
Crumbling health infrastructure in state
According to Chhattisgarh government data, deaths have increased by 2,000 per cent over the past month.
On 12 March, only four deaths were recorded and 447 cases reported — including 121 in Raipur. This number jumped to 107 deaths and 13,576 cases on 12 April — with 3,442 cases in Raipur.
Patients’ families ThePrint spoke to said the rise in deaths is because the health infrastructure is unable to handle the spiralling number of cases. This is reflected in shortage of beds and inability to get hospital treatment in time.
“I tried at two private hospitals but both said they were full. When I finally got my sister-in-law here, she died before I could even get her a stretcher,” Kamal Patel said, standing outside BRAM Hospital.
A family member of a patient at AIIMS, who did not want to be named, said, “I tried at five private hospitals for two days to get my mother a bed. Finally, we had to come here to wait for a bed. Here also, we waited the entire day and only after 8 pm my mother was allotted a bed on Tuesday. They had to give her oxygen here out in the open amid other patients and their families.”
Government officials ThePrint spoke to said the rise in deaths is because of patients coming late.
“Patients are coming in at a very critical state. By the time they reach the hospital, their oxygen levels are at 60-70 per cent. Some patients are even brought dead,” said Dr Vineet Jain, medical superintendent, BRAM Hospital.
Officials also said people are still not taking the virus seriously, which is reflecting in the spike in cases and deaths. “People are not getting tested. People are still thinking this is a normal virus like a cough or a cold. When it becomes severe, only then they go to hospitals. All private hospitals are full. AIIMS and Ambedkar get severe cases from other districts as well. That’s why these hospitals are over capacity,” said Bhattacharya.
While Chhattisgarh’s Covid situation is unravelling in Raipur’s hospitals, mortuaries and crematoria authorities said the deaths only reflect how the virus has gradually spread through the community. “Covid protocols weren’t being followed. Gradually it has spread through the community and now it’s reflected in deaths data,” said Jain.
“We can’t suddenly increase oxygen beds or ICU beds or ventilators. Our capacity has increased in comparison to last year but not in proportion to the severity of the disease. You can increase capacity but if disease gets more severe… it is difficult,” he added.
Doctors said the government has also been lax by allowing events like the Road Safety Match in Raipur in March. The event saw the participation of high-profile cricket legends like Sachin Tendulkar, Brian Lara and Yuvraj Singh, among others.
“Where is the traffic that they needed to hold that match with a full audience in Raipur? Now we are seeing the effects of that match,” said a doctor at Balco Hospital, who did not wish to be named.