COVID-19 Update: Gujarat

Pyres of a tragedy in Gujarat as the COVID-19 crisis worsens

Print edition : June 18, 2021

Doctors and other medical staff at the newly set up post-COVID-19 recovery ward at the Dhanvantary Covid Hospital (DRDO facility) in Ahmedabad on May 27. Photo: VIJAY SONEJI

The State’s fatality rate has not fallen and there is concern over unaccounted COVID deaths.

Gujarat’s COVID crisis gets worse every week. On May 26, it emerged as the State with the highest number of mucormycosis (Black Fungus) cases in the country. Reporting 2,859 of the 11,717 cases in India, Gujarat faces a massive challenge with the new disease. The State’s fatality rate has not fallen and there is concern over unaccounted COVID deaths. Amid all this there is a deafening silence from the government on all critical issues.

The State’s official COVID tracker reports 9,665 deaths from the time the pandemic began until May 26. The case fatality rate (CFR) continues at 1.2 per cent, as in early May. There are a few positive signs: the average growth rate of infections has dropped from 1.7 per cent on May 13 to 0.5 per cent on May 26. Additionally, the recovery rate has increased from 88 per cent to 90.9 per cent during the same period. Maharashtra reports a CFR of 1.7 per cent and an infection growth rate of 0.5 per cent. However, Gujarat sources say Maharashtra’s is an accurate figure, whereas in Gujarat there is a mismatch between official data and the ground reality.

In the wake of the alarming surge of Black Fungus cases, Chief Minister Vijay Rupani announced that the State was taking measures to segregate wards and ensure there was adequate medication for affected patients. When the disease made its appearance, the State did not have the required drug, Amphotericin-B. It now says that there will be enough stocks once the Central government starts distribution. The State has declared it a notified disease under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which means all suspected and confirmed cases must be reported. All hospitals will need to follow guidelines given by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the Central government.

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The underreporting of deaths in Gujarat appears to continue. Sources in Ahmedabad, Rajkot and Vadodara say multiple ground reports produced by local dailies reveal that the deaths are approximately seven times more than what is officially reported. For instance, Deepak Patel, a journalist, has been comparing the issuance of death certificates against the COVID death numbers put out by the State. His report, which was posted on several news sites, said 1.23 lakh death certificates were issued in Gujarat between March 1 and May 10. During the same period last year, 58,000 certificates were issued. Therefore 65,000 deaths need to be accounted for. The number well exceeds Gujarat’s mortality rate, which is 5.9 per 1,000 inhabitants.

Dr Murad Banaji, a public health expert based in the United Kingdom, said heightened mortality in Gujarat should be taken note of and compared with the numbers during the same period in 2019 and earlier years. The sizeable jump in deaths indicates a monumental tragedy is unfolding, he said in his post.

Divya Bhaskar, a local daily, has been collecting death data through various ground investigations such as perusal of registers at crematoriums and burial sites. A translation of a news item sent to this correspondent gives specific details from a few major cities. In Bhavnagar, for instance, the estimated number of deaths was 2,891 during a 71-day period (March 1 to May 10). The Gujarat COVID portal says 279 people have died of COVID in Bhavnagar since the start of the pandemic.

During the same period in 2020, Ahmedabad city issued 7,786 death certificates. In 2021 it issued 13,593 death certificates in the same 71 days. The Gujarat government’s COVID portal reports 2,126 people died of COVID at this time. Similarly, in Rajkot, which witnessed a massive surge in the second wave of the virus, 10,878 death certificates were issued between March 1 and May 10. Officially, only 288 people died of the coronavirus in Rajkot during the same time.

Another indicator of the increasing deaths is the obituaries in local papers. According to a journalist who is tracking obituaries, from 20 obituaries a day in early March there were 200 in one day in one paper in Bhavnagar.

Also read: The missing dead in Gujarat's second wave

A public health expert based in Gandhinagar says even if other diseases have contributed to the escalating deaths, a pandemic is raging and it is obvious that COVID is responsible for a good number of the fatalities. The only justification the Rupani government has given is that under ICMR regulations the government is bound to report only deaths for which the primary cause is COVID and not deaths which are COVID-related but caused by comorbidities such as heart attack or hypertension. When pressed by the media for answers, Rupani said every death is being investigated and recorded by “death audit committees”.

The public health expert said that many were dying at homes, untested and untreated and that no one was bothering anymore with the cause of death. “The only thing they worry about is cremating the body and providing some form of dignity to the departed. Even the state seems to be turning a blind eye to the pyres that are lit in forests and river banks. It is a pathetic situation,” he said.

Gujarat has been hit hard by the second wave of COVID-19. It can only be hoped lessons have been learnt and the third wave will be tackled better.

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