India, home to the world’s worst ongoing coronavirus outbreak, has reported more than 17.6 million cases since the pandemic began last year. But the real number, experts fear, could be up to 30 times higher – meaning more than half a billion cases. Health workers and scientists in India have long warned that COVID-19 infections and related deaths are significantly underreported for several reasons, including poor infrastructure, human error, and low testing levels.
On the one hand, there are ambulances queueing nonstop outside all our hospitals; social media platforms flooding with SOS posts pleading for testings, medicines, food, oxygen, hospital beds and ICUs; the crematoria running overtime, melting the very iron of their furnaces, and still being unable to dispose of all the dead, helplessly outsourcing funeral pyres to parking lots, roads, and public parks; night skies of our cities and towns ablaze with these funeral pyres charring the very skies that enshroud us, so much so that everyone and everything smells of burnt human flesh; and aerial photographs from these charred skies of a flesh-smelling funeral pyre of a country making to the front pages of major international newspapers; on the other hand, the COVID-19 mortality data for India shows a story – needless to say, fictitious, and – incompatible with the actualities on the ground.
While it may be true that even the official data gives off no rosy picture of the fatalities incurred, the discrepancy in official statistics and the ground reality is a shock, nothing short of an earthquake.
You may remember the frightening video from two weeks ago of scores of ambulances waiting for hours outside Ahmedabad Civic Hospital, Gujarat. These were scenes from the largest government COVID facility, which had run out of oxygen and ventilator beds, when every single one of these vans had in it a patient desperately battling death. What was the Gujarat government doing? Yes, you guessed that right: fudging the data. In mid-April, when the state of Gujarat was reporting 78 COVID-related casualties, 689 bodies were being cremated in just 7 of its cities alone. The Gujarat government has been indicted for grossly underreporting its COVID deaths to make itself appear dealing with the pandemic more competently than it actually is. Gujarat reported 152 and 157 deaths on last Saturday and Sunday respectively; however, 100-125 bodies were sent out daily from a civic hospital in Ahmedabad alone, according to a report by The Hindu. Unless four-fifths of Coronavirus related fatalities in Gujarat were occuring at a single hospital in Ahmedabad, the Gujarat government is lying through its teeth.
Gujarat isn’t the sole liar in the race for underreporting deaths. The New Indian Express reported inconsistency in Shivraj Government‘s tally and cremation records. The MP government reported 348 deaths from April 16 to April 20, but the cremation and burial facilities in Bhopal alone counted 597 funerals in the same time span. Over a period of 13 days in mid-April when Bhopal officials reported 41 COVID casualties, a survey by The New York Times revealed more than 1000 COVID mortalities in the city. Bhopal crematoria haven’t been as busy since the 1984’s miserable Gas Tragedy. The state government has denied that their tally is incorrect. It can be safely assumed that Bhopal crematoriums must be importing bodies of COVID victims to cremate from outside.
In the capital of Uttar Pradesh, Lucknow, the official number of mortalities between April 11 to April 16 was 145, when Bloomberg reported that number to be higher than 430. An analysis by The Wire based on two of the city’s major crematoriums indicate that only 50% of COVID deaths make it to the official bulletins in Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s own constituency. The obfuscation of numbers may be most prevalent in BJP ruled states, but it is not exclusive to them. Telangana reported 33 COVID mortalities on April 23, when 80-100 people reportedly died in just two of Hyderabad’s major hospitals the day before. Chhattisgarh‘s Durg district, according to media reports to The Times, suffered more than 150 fatalities from April 15 to April 21. The Congress ruled state officially reported less than half that number for Durg.
A leading epidemiologist at the University of Michigan, Bhramar Mukherjee, who has been observing India’s second wave of COVID epidemic closely, said, “It’s a complete massacre of data. From all the modelling we’ve done, we believe the true number of deaths is two to five times what is being reported.” Vikas Bajpai of the Progressive Medicos and Scientists Forum told DW, “India’s soaring official COVID-19 count may just represent the tip of an iceberg.” He also suggested that the actual caseload and deaths could be “anything from 10 to 30 times higher.” He pointed out that 734 Indian doctors had died of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. The health ministry put the number at 313.
While this ever-worsening hellish spectacle plays out in front of the horror-struck audience of 1.4 billion, the Prime Minister has urged people to “spread positivity“. The Chief Minister of Haryana, M.L. Khattar, obliging the PM’s call for positivity, said about the accusations on his government of tinkering COVID data, “The dead will never be back. There is no point in a debate over the number of deaths.” Our Health Minister – aptly named Harsh Vardhan – had precariously declared way back in March that India is nearing – and don’t miss the MCU referencing, cutesy equivoque of the Minister – the “endgame“. The UP government, lavishing ₹4200 crore worth of development funds for the organisation of the opulent Kumbh Mela, magnanimously invited Indians to attend it. The Indians enthusiastically responded in 7.1 million devotees brimming the Ganges with utmost religiosity. The Prime Minister himself contributed generously to this positivity-agenda with his grandiose maskless election campaign in Bengal; owing to his unyielding efforts, every second person in Kolkata is now COVID positive.
India has broken all world records crossing the point of 300,000 new cases in a single day. Now India has been breaking its own record everyday since the past month. The official number of new COVID-19 cases on Thursday was recorded to be 3.86 lacs. The official – pardon my mischievous emphasis on the term – death count was recorded at a staggering 3,498 over the last 24 hours. Experts have suggested the actual numbers to be anything from 5 to 30 times higher than the official one. So, do your own multiplications. These daily death counts are significantly higher than the casualties of the worst communal massacres. It’s about time the government wakes out of its delusions and acknowledges its colossal failure. We must become transparent about our crisis. Only then can we stare it into the face. Only then can we begin to rectify it.
Umar Farooque Shaikh is a student pursuing English Literature from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Varda Ahmad
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this publication are those of the author. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of The Jamia Review or its members.