India’s Holiest River Ganges Swells with the Casualties of Covid’s Second Wave

Nicole Jagonase, Projects Officer

29 May 2021

A key challenge arose in the disposal of the pandemic’s victims. As of the 10th May, at least 40 bodies had been discovered on the riverbanks near the border between the States of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, with the count rising into the hundreds in the last fortnight.

These have raised many questions about the precision of Covid-19 data, as after almost 4 months of high infection rates, the healthcare system was immensely overwhelmed in having a disproportional supply of vital drugs and oxygen in relation to the onslaught of people who needed critical care. Experts and local residents alike believe that the real death toll could be much higher than the official records show, since a huge proportion of the population, especially in rural areas, were unable to access medical facilities and also faced a huge hurdle in the rapid increase of costs of burial processions - leaving many with no option but to put the bodies of their loved ones in the river.

"Private hospitals are looting people. Common people are not left with money to pay a priest and spend more on cremation at the riverbank. They are asking 2,000 rupees [£20; $27] just to get the corpse out of the ambulance. The river has become their last recourse so people are immersing corpses in the river." – an account from a local resident Chandra Mohan.

In a BBC interview, a journalist in Kanpur said: "All electric crematoriums were running 24/7 in April. Even that was not enough, so the administration allowed the grounds outside to be used for cremations using wood. But they only accepted bodies that were coming from hospitals with Covid-19 certificates, and a huge number of people were dying at home, without getting any tests. Their families took the bodies to the outskirts of the city or to neighbouring districts like Unnao. When they couldn't find wood or a cremation spot, they just buried them on the river bed."

Despite ‘stabilising infection and death rates’ according Indian health authorities, the numbers of corpses found in this time span paints a picture that the crisis in India is far from over. With 120 million vaccine doses promised in June by the Indian government, the rest of the India and the international community look on with bated breath.

"It is heart breaking," A journalist from Prayagraj lamented. "All these people were someone's son, daughter, brother, father and mother. They deserved some respect in death. But they have not even become part of the statistics - they died unknown and were buried unknown.”

To read more about the situation in India, see:
https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/05/20/abandoned-corpses-rural-india-indicate-surge-covid-19-deaths
https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-57225922
https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/5/30/india-says-will-have-120m-vaccine-doses-for-local-use-in-june