India has suffered its worst day yet of the pandemic, as both new Covid-19 cases and deaths broke previous records and crematoriums in Delhi became so overloaded with bodies that they are being forced to build makeshift funeral pyres on spare patches of land.
On Wednesday morning, India reported 360,960 new cases in the previous 24 hours, the largest single-day increase in the world, taking India’s total to nearly 18 million. A further 3,293 deaths, the deadliest day so far, took the death toll to 201,187.
Dellhi is under lockdown until at least next week but deaths in the capital continued to climb in record numbers, with another 381 succumbing to Covid-19 on Tuesday. The city’s crematoriums and graveyards struggled to cope with the sheer number of bodies, running out of both space and wood for funeral pyres. Relatives of the dead sat with bodies for up 20 hours outside some crematoriums waiting to perform the last rites on their loved ones.
Outside some crematoriums, dozens of dead bodies waiting to be cremated were laid out on the pavements, covered with sheets and flowers in Delhi’s baking heat.
Many believe the real death toll in the capital and across India is far higher than official figures, as authorities have been accused of skewing the data to downplay the tragedy. Many people have also been in home quarantine and so not officially registered as Covid-19 deaths. In Delhi, 3,472 Covid-protocol funerals have taken place over the past week, but officially only 2,127 people died of coronavirus in this period.
Jayant Malhotra, co-founder of Sant Shiv Sewa foundation, which has been assisting people with cremations in Delhi for free during the pandemic, said the number of bodies his organisation was called to cremate or bury had gone from one every few days to 40 every day in recent weeks.
“It is a very difficult situation because so many dead bodies are coming in and we can’t find the space in the crematorium grounds and Islamic and Christian graveyards,” said Malhotra. He added that his organisation was now experiencing families leaving the bodies of coronavirus patients with them and then disappearing, not wanting to attend the cremation of their loved ones.
Malhotra said his staff started work at 6am and did not stop until 7pm, at three different crematorium grounds in Delhi. “We have a core team of 25 people who work for 13 hours every day,” he said. “But it’s getting worse.”
He added: “It’s heartbreaking. In one family there were six members and five died from Covid in just a few days. It’s so, so sad, we could never have imagined that this number of people would be dying. Now the cremators are getting infected. Last week, my ambulance driver who has been collecting sick people and dead bodies also died because he got coronavirus. It never ends.”
Numerous crematoriums in Delhi have been forced to expand into footpaths, nearby parks, car parks and open ground but they are still running out of space. At Sarai Kale Khan crematorium, 70 extra funeral pyre platforms are being built.
In the Dwarka area of Delhi, a dog crematorium is to be converted into use for human bodies as the authorities scrambled for additional space for the Covid dead, and authorities are also looking for space along the Yamuna river.
A senior official in Delhi said the city was experiencing a 15% rise in funerals every day. Municipal corporations have been instructed to expand crematorium capacity to cope with 1,000 bodies a day.
Crematoriums also reportedly running low on wood to build the funeral pyres. Some trees in the capital’s parks have been cut down and in east Delhi, the municipal corporation issued orders to use cow dung patties, instead of wood, in cremations.
“If we get more bodies then we will cremate on the road. There is no more space here,” said Jitender Singh Shanty, who is coordinating more than 100 cremations per day at an east Delhi crematorium. “We had never thought that we would see such horrible scenes.”
The explosion in cases was reflected across the country, with 11 states all registering their highest number of daily cases so far in the pandemic, with hospital beds in Goa and Haryana running out.
India’s devastating second wave has driven a surge in global coronavirus cases to 147.7 million. The virus has now killed more than 3.1 million people worldwide.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said that the B1617 variant of Covid-19 first found in India, which is feared to be driving India’s deadly second wave, had now been traced in “at least 17 countries”. Currently the WHO has dubbed it as a “variant of interest” but so far it has stopped short of declaring it a “variant of concern” similar to the Brazil, UK and South African variants.
In Fiji, an outbreak of the Indian variant has forced the capital into lockdown after the island nation had avoided infections for a year, with health officials saying they fear a “tsunami” of cases.