The mismatch between official figures and eyewitness accounts on the number of COVID-19 deaths and cases of infection continues in Gujarat. From early April, the State has been grappling with a surge in the death count, mainly owing to a lack of timely medical help and a break down in the health infrastructure. Until mid-April, when media published reports and conducted sting operations, the true picture was not revealed.
Local sources say that if the number of obituaries in newspapers, information from crematoria, burial sites and residential colonies are anything to go by, the situation is grave. Yet, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani maintains that the official death count is accurate, and the government is doing everything in its capacity to control the disease.
Virus has Spread to the rural belt
On May 13, the State COVID tracker reported 8,731 deaths. There are 1,27,483 active cases and the case fatality ratio has been calculated at 1.2 per cent, which means that for every 100 confirmed cases, one person has died. The tracker says 10,519 out of every 10 lakh people in Gujarat have tested positive. The average rate of growth of the infection, which is calculated on a seven-day basis, is 1.7 per cent. This is worrying because neighbouring Maharashtra has reported a 1 per cent average growth rate. However, Gujarat has an 88 per cent recovery rate. While metros such as Ahmedabad and Surat have been under the grip of the pandemic, the virus has now spread to the rural belt. “It will be worse in the villages as they have no access to treatment. People will die in thousands once the spread accelerates in the districts,” Sagar Rabari of the Khedut Ekta Manch said. Nine districts—Amreli, Anand, Aravalli, Dahod, Devbhoomi Dwarka, Kheda, Mahisagar, Panchmahal and Sabarkantha—in the rural and tribal belt are showing a worrying trend. According to the tracker, in these districts the test positivity rate is above 10 per cent. Manish Ranawat, a social worker in Anand, said: “The government should be alert to the growing rate of infection and prepare for the third wave, which will hit the rural belt. If you can’t get oxygen in Ahmedabad, how will you get it in rural and backward district hospitals?” As per the tracker’s calculations, the shift can be seen in the percentage of deaths recorded in urban and non-urban areas in April. In early April, 83 per cent of the deaths took place in Ahmedabad, Surat, Vadodara, Rajkot, Bhavnagar, Jamnagar, Junagadh and Gandhinagar, which are the major cities in the State. By mid-April the deaths from non-urban areas had touched 53 per cent.
Newspaper’s data collection exercise
To prove the mismatch in data, Sandesh , a Gujarati daily told its reporters to count the number of dead in various hospitals, crematoria and burial grounds in various municipal corporations and match the figures against the official numbers daily. According to local people, the newspaper has been publishing the data collected by its reporters every day. With BBC broadcasting Sandesh ’s exercise, the government, apparently embarrassed by the international attention the report received, maintained that the discrepancy arose because it only counted those who died of COVID and not those who succumbed to comorbidities. Rupani has been using this excuse to keep the figures down. According to him, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) guidelines stipulate that only COVID deaths should be included in the official tally.
Here is a sample of the data published in Sandesh . On April 16, journalists drove through Ahmedabad visiting approximately 21 cremation grounds. They counted body bags, pyres and spoke to cremation workers, who showed them papers giving the cause of death. Reporters took photographs and videos of the sites to back up their data. On April 16, Ahmedabad reported 16 casualties, but Sandesh reporters counted 200 bodies. On April 11, a reporter waiting in his vehicle outside Ahmedabad’s Civil Hospital counted 69 bodies. The entire State of Gujarat reported 55 deaths that day.
Although other States have benefited from a complete lockdown, Gujarat has been reluctant to enforce a strict closure as business and industry lie at its core. A mercantile community, a large percentage of the population depends on business for its livelihood. The government has enforced a night curfew, allowed essential services to function and industrial units to operate with 50 per cent staff.
In a novel experiment, the State has opened drive-in vaccine centres so that people do not throng vaccination centres. However, as in other States, shortage of vaccine has halted the drive. If death and disease are not enough, mucormycosis, or black fungus, which is causing blindness and pain in COVID patients, has hit Gujarat.