Representative image of a cremation in progress at Ahmedabad, amidst a surge in COVID-19 cases. Photo: PTI
Ahmedabad: For the past three months, photos and reports of long queues at crematoriums and cemeteries in the national and the local media flew in the face of the Gujarat government’s official COVID-19 data released every evening.
While anecdotal evidence and surveys of obituary notices in local newspapers made it clear the official death toll in the ongoing second wave of the pandemic was an undercount, confirmation about the scale of the cover-up emerged only on Friday when the Gujarati daily, Divya Bhaskar published the results of its investigation into the number of official death certificates issued by the government over March, April and May of this year and compared these figures with the corresponding period last year.
Backed up by a district-wise and major city-wise break-up of the data, Divya Bhaskar noted that the Gujarat government had issued 1,23,871 death certificates in 71 days between March 1, 2021, and May 10, 2021. This was more than double the number issued for the corresponding period in 2020, which was 58,000 death certificates. In the absence of any other major factor contributing to mortality, it is clear that these 65,781 excess deaths were actually caused by the surge in COVID-19 infections the state this year, though the cause of death for 80% of these is listed as hypertension, diabetes and other co-morbidities.
However, the government’s official COVID-19 death toll for March 1-May 10, 2021 is just 4,218,
While the media in Gujarat has continuously reported how the state government has been hiding the actual numbers of COVID-19 cases and deaths, officials and ministers have so far maintained a stoic silence over the discrepancy.
Journalists who telephone the principal secretary (health) Jayanti Ravi for a response to the mismatch between official death data and records from cremation grounds, cemeteries and obituary notices have got used to getting a message from her which says “Please txt”. But when they do, they never get a response. Health commissioner Jaiprakash Shivhare sends reporters who call him a text message saying, “I am in a meeting, can we please talk later”. As for deputy chief minister Nitin Patel, who also holds the health portfolio and is currently recovering from COVID-19, his telephone remains constantly busy.
This time, however, stunned by the use that journalists have made of official data on death certificates, the government was quick to formally dismiss the idea that this was proof of COVID-19 deaths being undercounted. Within 24 hours of the Divya Bhaskar report, minister of state for home Pradipsinh Jadeja, who has nothing to do with the health department, called a press conference to dismiss it as “baseless”. He also said that when the number of cases has been coming down and recoveries have increased, it was “mischievous” to link the number of death certificates to COVID-19.
Jadeja’s reply, in an English language press release which is a translation of the Gujarati original, states:
“When there is a death of a person in the family, death certificate is required for the bank insurance, LIC and other services. In such circumstances, we have developed an online process so that family members can obtain certificates at home easily.
“Death certificates are issued for various reasons, so we can not ignore the possibility of more than one registration for a person sometimes. Therefore, there can be a difference in the figure of death certificates issued and the number of deaths. As death is a serious matter and involves many rituals, it is possible that people might not register it at the same time. The time of death, registration and issuing of certificates are three different aspects. All these 3 things combined together to show death figures and analysis in the print media report is totally inappropriate.”
The minister adds, “When the number of cases is coming down, when the recovery rate is improving, the media should not create fears and panic among the people with such misleading reporting. Seeing the number of death certificates together with COVID-19 deaths is not presenting the right picture.”
Explaining the situation, the outgoing president of the Gujarat unit of the Indian Medical Association, Dr Chandresh Jardosh, says, “The mismatch is because the government doesn’t want to consider COVID-19 deaths of patients with comorbidities as a coronavirus statistic, and it hides behind some claim that the Indian Council of Medical Research has laid out guidelines to count the COVID-19 deaths.”
He is not wrong. Chief Minister Vijay Rupani earlier told the media that the state government doesn’t consider deaths of patients with comorbidities to be COVID-19 deaths. “As per the ICMR guidelines, there is an experts committee that decides the primary and secondary cause of death in cases of patients with co-morbidities.” Though the chief minister said that this is the system being followed across the country, a detailed fact-check has established that his interpretation of the ICMR’s guidelines is wrong.
In response to the government’s denial, Divya Bhaskar’s state editor Devendra Bhatnagar tweeted in Hindi: “We have given the source of our data. Tell us on what basis you are refuting us. Please add up the bodies cremated, those reaching the cemeteries, the homage advertisements in the newspapers and bodies brought out in ambulances in hospitals, you will get the truth of the death certificate numbers.”
“The government will not tell the truth even now? These death numbers are from March to May, 2021. If you can, make public the morbid and co-morbid COVID-19 death numbers. The high court has also stated this,” Bhatnagar continued.
Darshan Desai is editor, Development News Network (DNN), Gujarat.