MUMBAI / AHMEDABAD, India (Reuters) – Parts of India saw a dramatic drop in the number of deaths at a time when funeral directors were preparing to rise amid the coronavirus crisis.
FILE PHOTO: A man drives past a row of bicycles set up as a blockade during a nationwide road blockade to slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Mumbai, India, on April 7, 2020. REUTERS / Prashant Waydande
Some experts said the trend indicated that COVID-19 deaths, which are reported separately and generally announced before all-cause mortality, were not reported as in other countries.
However, doctors, officials and crematoriums in the emergency room found that severe closures have reduced the number of traffic accidents and deaths on the crowded Indian railways and may also prevent relatives from reporting family deaths.
Mortality rates are being studied around the world to determine the real impact of the coronavirus that hit China late last year and is known to have infected more than 2.7 million people worldwide with nearly 190,000 deaths.
While deaths have risen sharply in some countries in recent weeks, the opposite seems to be happening in some places in India, where overall data are not available, and hospitals, funeral homes, and cremation centers are wondering what’s going on.
“It is very surprising for us,” said Shruthi Reddy, managing director of Anthyesti Funeral Services, which operates in the eastern city of Kolkata and the southern technology center of Bengaluru.
The company did about five jobs a day in January, but only about three a day this month.
“We declared employee wage cuts when earnings fall below a threshold,” said Reddy.
Other numbers tell a similar story.
In central Mumbai, which is home to around 12 million people, the number of deaths declined by around 21% in March compared to the same month in 2019, according to the city administration.
In Ahmedabad, the largest city in Gujarat’s home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, deaths fell by 67% over the same period.
Data from at least two other cities as well as reports from state health authorities show a similar pattern. Half a dozen funeral homes and crematoria also reported burglaries, particularly in April.
“If we don’t see an increase in deaths, the suspicion that there could be more COVID-19 deaths out there is not true,” said Giridhar Babu, professor of epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India.
A graphic of India’s mortality rates can be found at: tmsnrt.rs/3bBGfZ5
Modi imposed a blockade on 1.3 billion people in India on March 25 to stop the spread of the coronavirus, which has recently infected over 23,400 people and killed 723 of them.
The lower number of registered deaths in parts of India contrasts with the Netherlands, which recorded around 2,000 more deaths than normal in the first week of April.
In the Indonesian capital Jakarta, the number of burials rose sharply in March, and in some cities in Italy there was also an increase in registered deaths.
Indian doctors, officials and crematorium workers suspect that a decrease in the number of traffic and rail accidents is a major factor.
“Traffic accidents and even patients with alcohol or drug abuse, stroke, and heart attack have been reported in lower numbers,” said Dr. Himanta Biswa Sarma, health minister of the northeastern state of Assam.
Accidents on India’s chaotic streets killed more than 151,400 people in 2018, according to official figures.
The coronavirus block, which is scheduled to end on May 3, will reduce the number of fatalities by at least 15% this year compared to 2018, said Paresh Kumar Goel, director of the Ministry of Roads and Motorways.
With passenger trains stopping, the number of deaths due to railway accidents that are too frequent has also decreased. In Mumbai alone, for example, more than half a dozen people die on the rail network every day.
LESS MURDERES ALSO?
Neeraj Kumar, who is responsible for a crematorium on the banks of the holy corridor in Uttar Pradesh state, said that crime victims were not brought in either.
“We used to get at least 10 bodies related to accidents every day and many related to murder. But after the ban, we only get natural deaths, ”said Kumar.
Up to 30 cremations a day were previously carried out here, but only 43 people have been cremated in the month since March 22, Kumar said after reviewing the crematorium’s record book.
While stringent barriers may have deterred some criminals, the lower rates may also reflect difficulties in reporting deaths, officials said.
“There could be an increase when the suspension ends,” said Dr. Bhavin Joshi, a senior official from the Ministry of Health of the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation.
Requests from the national registrar for India-wide data remained unanswered, while a New Delhi City Council official said he could not provide numbers.
An outlier was the eastern state of Odisha, which recorded around 11% more deaths in March 2020 than in the same month last year. Officials were not immediately available for comments.
Reuters was also unable to obtain data for the state of West Bengal, where some doctors have accused the government of underestimating coronavirus deaths.
In West Bengal, only a state-appointed committee can declare that a patient has died from the virus.
Additional reporting by Jatindra Dash in Bhubaneswar, Saurabh Sharma in Lucknow, Jose Devasia in Kochi, Zarir Hussain in Guwahati, Subrata Nagchoudhury in Kolkata and Shilpa Jamkhandikar in Mumbai; Edited by Euan Rocha, Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher