Non-stop Cremations Cast Doubt on India's Counting of COVID
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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% capacity to cremate bodies on time," Kamlesh Sailor, the president of the trust that runs the crematorium told.

India on April 19 registered a record 273,810 new daily infections and 1,619 deaths. Its total number of cases now stands at more than 15 million, second only to the United States. 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 protocols "even if there is 0.1% probability of the person being positive".


In Surat, two crematoriums are cremating more than 100 bodies a day under COVID protocols. That's far in excess the city's official daily COVID death toll of around 25. "It feels like nobody understands the situation very clearly, and that's very irksome," expert says.

Prashant Kabrawala, trustee of Narayan Trust, which manages a third city crematorium called Ashwinikumar, declined to provide the number of bodies received under COVID protocols, but said cremations there had tripled in recent weeks.

India is not the only country to have its coronavirus statistics questioned. But the testimony of workers and a growing body of academic literature suggest deaths in India are being underreported compared to other countries.


In Lucknow, data from the largest COVID-only crematorium, Baikunthdham, shows double the number of bodies arriving on six different days in April than government data on COVID deaths for the entire city. The figures do not take into account a second COVID-only crematorium in the city, or burials in the Muslim community that makes up a quarter of the city's population.

The Lancet medical journal noted last year that four Indian states making up 65% of COVID fatalities nationally each registered 100% of their coronavirus deaths. But fewer than a quarter of deaths in India are medically certified, particularly in rural areas, meaning the true COVID death rate in many of India's 24 other states may never be known.

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