In this aerial photograph, funeral pyres of COVID-19 coronavirus victims are seen in a cremation ground along the banks of the Ganges River, in Garhmukteshwar. – AFP

NEW DELHI: Authorities in northern India said they have installed a net across the Ganges river after the bodies of dozens of suspected COVID-19 victims washed up. The discovery of 71 corpses in Bihar state stoked fears that the virus was raging unseen in India’s vast rural hinterland where two-thirds of its people live.

Locals suggested to AFP that relatives immersed the bodies in the river because they could not afford wood for traditional Hindu cremations or because crematoriums were overwhelmed by the number of funerals. Bihar’s water resources minister Sanjay Kumar said on Twitter yesterday that a “net has been placed” in the river on the state border with Uttar Pradesh and patrolling increased.

He said the impoverished state’s government was “pained at both the tragedy as well as harm to the river Ganges”. Kumar added that postmortems confirmed that the corpses had been dead four to five days. Press reports said as many as 25 bodies had also been recovered in the Gahmar district of Uttar Pradesh state. The Hindu daily quoted a local police official there as saying there were long queues at cremation grounds in the northern state. “It is possible that in hurry some disposed of the bodies in the river like this,” Hitendra Krishna was quoted as saying.

Toll crosses 250,000
Meanwhile, India’s coronavirus death toll passed 250,000 yesterday but comparisons of official data with those from people on the frontlines suggested the true number is several times higher. Across the vast nation, the devastating COVID-19 wave has overwhelmed hospitals with patients and crematoriums with bodies, and many coronavirus deaths are not being properly recorded as such.

Experts say the official quarter-million death count is hugely underreported. “Even three to four times would be an underestimate,” Anant Bhan, an independent health policy and bioethics researcher, told AFP. Harrowing images from overwhelmed crematoriums, graveyards, and even makeshift funeral pyres have highlighted the scale of the crisis. Bodies of suspected COVID-19 victims have also been seen floating down the holy Ganges river.

The discrepancies appear particularly stark in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat. In Rajkot in the west of the state, the official death toll between April 1-23 was 154, yet the city’s own health officials put it at 723. And in Bharuch, the official count for the same period was just 23 but there were 600 funerals.

Gujarat’s chief minister Vijay Rupani insisted that the state was following guidelines from the Indian Council of Medical Research. Those say only deaths directly caused by COVID-19 can be recorded as such, but not fatalities triggered by co-morbidities-when a patient had heart problems and dies of cardiac arrest, for instance. – AFP