India: Non-stop cremations cast doubt on counting of COVID dead

Gas and firewood furnaces at a crematorium in the western Indian state of Gujarat have been running so long without a break during the COVID-19 pandemic that metal parts have begun to melt.

“We are working around the clock at 100 percent capacity to cremate bodies on time,” Kamlesh Sailor, the president of the trust that runs the crematorium in the diamond-polishing city of Surat, told the Reuters news agency.

And with hospitals full and oxygen and medicines in short supply in an already creaky health system, several big cities are reporting far larger numbers of cremations and burials under coronavirus protocols than official COVID-19 death tolls, according to crematorium and cemetery workers, media and a review of government data.

India’s daily COVID-19 cases retreated from record levels on Tuesday but stayed above the 200,000 mark for a sixth-straight day, with cases increasing by 259,170 over the last 24 hours.

Deaths from COVID-19 rose by a record 1,761 to reach a total of 180,530, health ministry data showed.

Reliable data is at the heart of any government response to the pandemic, without which planning for hospital vacancies, oxygen and medicine becomes difficult, experts say.

Government officials say the mismatch in death tallies may be caused by several factors, including over-caution.

A senior state health official said the increase in numbers of cremations had been due to bodies being cremated using COVID-19 protocols “even if there is 0.1 percent probability of the person being positive”.

“In many cases, patients come to hospital in an extremely critical condition and die before they are tested and there are instances where patients are brought dead to hospital, and we do not know if they are positive or not,” the official said.

But Bhramar Mukherjee, a professor of biostatistics and epidemiology at the University of Michigan, said many parts of India were in “data denial”.


“Everything is so muddy,” she said. “It feels like nobody understands the situation very clearly and that’s very irksome.”