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The death of dignity: Sons have to squeeze the corpse of their mother between them on a motorbike to take her to crematorium amid claims government is covering up scale of India’s covid crisis

  • India’s Covid crisis shows no sign of slowing with 379,257 new cases and 3,645 new deaths, both record tolls 
  • Amid the crisis, shocking video emerged of brothers riding with their mother’s body to have her cremated
  • Woman, named locally as G Chenchu and aged in her 50s, collapsed and died waiting to be admitted to hospital – and with no ambulances available to transport her body, the brothers had to step in
  • In Uttar Pradesh, chief minister Yogi Adityanath was accused of trying to cover up the situation by threatening to arrest anyone reporting a shortage of oxygen or hospital beds, saying there is plenty of both

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At first glance, this footage of a motorbike being driven through the streets of India amid the country’s Covid crisis appears to show nothing more unusual than three people sharing the saddle.

But in fact, the heartbreaking video shows two sons gripping their mother’s dead body between them as they take her for burial due to a lack of ambulances after she died of the virus.

The brothers, Narendra Chenchu and Ramesh, had been trying to get their mother – in her 50s and named locally as G Chenchu – admitted to hospital in Andhra Pradesh state on Tuesday when she collapsed and died.

With the country’s healthcare system collapsing, the pair were forced to put her on their bike and ride nine miles with her body pinned between them so she could be given her last rites and cremated.

Police initially stopped the trio thinking they were riding with too many people on the bike, but after realising the woman was dead the officers let them go.

‘I wouldn’t wish this upon anyone,’ Narendra said. ‘It is going to haunt me every time I ride this motorcycle.’

The shocking footage emerged as India reported yet another day of record numbers – 379,257 cases and 3,645 deaths – with the country’s crisis showing no sign of easing. 

But in Uttar Pradesh state, chief minister Yogi Adityanath was accused of trying to cover up the dire situation by threatening to arrest and seize the property of anyone reporting a shortage of oxygen and hospital beds.

Mr Adityanath, a right-wing ally of Prime Minister Modi, has previously denied any shortage of ‘beds, oxygen or life-saving drugs’ in the state and accused those saying otherwise of spreading ‘rumours and propaganda’.

Police subsequently arrested a man who had been posting on social media searching for oxygen for a his 88-year-old relative, saying his ‘false tweet’ had prompted others to accuse the government of wrongdoing.  

Elsewhere in India today:

  • Elections were allowed to go ahead in West Begnal state with millions of people heading to the polls and little sign of social distancing in place
  • Government chief scientific advisor K Vijay Raghavan admitted more should have been done to prepare for the second wave, and that people got complacent after the first wave ended 
  • Medics said the infection has spread from cities to rural areas where healthcare is often non-existent, with people turning to witch doctors for ‘cures’ 
  • Delhi’s chief minister said the city currently has ‘no vaccines’ available despite the government inviting everyone over the age of 18 to apply for one, and has no idea when more will arrive 
  • Facebook temporarily blocked posts calling on Prime Minister Modi to resign, just days after Twitter blocked posts criticising the government’s response to the crisis
  • Health Minister Harsh Vardhan claimed India has the ‘lowest Covid fatality rate in the world’ when comparing cases to deaths, even though most observers believe the death figure to be massively under-estimated 

Brothers Narendra Chenchu and Ramesh had been trying to get their mother, named locally G Chenchu and aged in her 50s, admitted to hospital in Andhra Pradesh state when she collapsed and died of Covid

With no ambulances available to take her for cremation, the brothers were forced to pin her dead body between their own and ride on a motorbike for nine miles so she could be given her last rites

With no ambulances available to take her for cremation, the brothers were forced to pin her dead body between their own and ride on a motorbike for nine miles so she could be given her last rites

Family members bring a relative suffering from to a hospital in Allahabad, India, for treatment

Family members bring a relative suffering from to a hospital in Allahabad, India, for treatment

A woman suffering from Covid-19 coronavirus sits on a stretcher before being admitted in a hospital for in Allahabad

A woman suffering from Covid-19 coronavirus sits on a stretcher before being admitted in a hospital for in Allahabad

A Covid-19 patient with breathing problems lays inside an ambulance while waiting to be admitted in a hospital in Allahabad

A Covid-19 patient with breathing problems lays inside an ambulance while waiting to be admitted in a hospital in Allahabad

Funeral pyres are lit at a crematorium in New Delhi, India, as the country's Covid crisis continues unabated - with another record-breaking day of cases and deaths reported

Funeral pyres are lit at a crematorium in New Delhi, India, as the country’s Covid crisis continues unabated – with another record-breaking day of cases and deaths reported

Gayesh Ansari watches as the body of his eight-months-pregnant wife Gulshan is lowered into a grave in Mumbai, India, after she died of Covid amid the country's brutal second wave

Gayesh Ansari watches as the body of his eight-months-pregnant wife Gulshan is lowered into a grave in Mumbai, India, after she died of Covid amid the country’s brutal second wave

A crematorium worker wearing protective gloves wipes tears from the eyes of a woman who arrived with the body of her mother who died of Covid in New Delhi, India

A crematorium worker wearing protective gloves wipes tears from the eyes of a woman who arrived with the body of her mother who died of Covid in New Delhi, India

India seven-day average Covid cases

India seven-day average Covid deaths

India reported 379,257 new Covid cases today, pushing its seven-day average to 350,000 (left), while another 3,645 deaths were logged, pushing the seven-day average to just short of 3,000 (right)

India’s Covid response: 1st wave vs 2nd wave 

India is suffering the world’s worst second wave of Covid, driven by what the WHO says is a mixture of more infectious variants and government complacency.

While India reacted to the first wave with a complete national shutdown and strict social distancing measures, mass gatherings and political rallies were allowed to go ahead even as the second wave of cases mounted.

Here, MailOnline examines two very different responses that produced two very different results:

1st wave

Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the country’s first ‘lockdown’ – a request for everyone to stay at home for 14 hours – on March 22 as cases reached 100 with one death, but followed up with a mandatory nationwide shutdown just three days later as cases hit 600.

All industrial activity was closed down with only essential businesses allowed to open and everyone told to stay in their homes, with measures initially due to last until April 14.

Mumbai train station during India's lockdown in March 2020

Mumbai train station during India’s lockdown in March 2020

The move caused chaos in a country that relies heavily on migrant labour, as millions of people fled cities for their villages in the countryside – some travelling for days on foot to get there.

Modi subsequently extended the lockdown until May 3 with liquor stores allowed to reopen on May 4 – but they were closed just hours later after drawing huge crowds with police using baton-charges to disperse people. The nationwide lockdown was then extended, first until May 18 and then until June 4.

A gradual unlocking process began June 5 and lasted through to the end of the year, with states slowly reopening their economies while trying to enforce social distancing and mask rules – though in reality many measures were abandoned sooner than scheduled.

2nd wave

As many western countries experienced a second wave of Covid during the winter, the Indian government congratulated itself as cases and deaths continued to decline even with most lockdown measures lifted.

Normal life was largely allowed to resume with mass political rallies taking place for elections due in March and April – some of which were attended by Modi himself.

The Hindu festival of Kumbh Mela was also given the go-ahead, with millions of devotees gathering on the banks of the Ganges during four months of celebrations that began in January and lasted until this week.

Crowds were also allowed back into sporting events, with England playing India in front of stands of maskless cricket fans in January. 

In February, with infections at their lowest point, the ruling BJP party passed a resolution that declared ‘victory’ against Covid ‘under the visionary leadership of Prime Minister Modi’. 

A Hindu festival goes ahead despite rising cases in April 2021

A Hindu festival goes ahead despite rising cases in April 2021

But just days later, cases began rising again and have now hit record levels, accounting for more than 40 per cent of global daily totals. 

Despite the situation deteriorating throughout March and then rapidly worsening in April, it was not until April 15 that Mumbai declared a city-wide lockdown to try and slow the spread, with Delhi following suit on April 19.

Several states – including Karnataka and Assam – have now applied Covid curbs to try and contain cases, election victory parades have been largely banned, and  Modi has passed emergency orders to try and get medical supplies to overrun hospitals.

However, there has been no talk of another nationwide shutdown even as the country’s healthcare system all-but collapses due to the weight of cases.

India appears instead to be relying on vaccines to get itself out of trouble, with appointments offered to anyone over the age of 18 starting today.

But it will take months at least to inoculate enough people to reach herd immunity even if India – which produces most of the world’s vaccines – can manufacture enough jabs for its 1.4billion population.

In the meantime, doctors warn that packing people into vaccination centres is helping to spread Covid and that more measures are needed to stop the virus spreading.

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While cities such as Delhi and Mumbai were early epicentres of infection, the virus has now spread to more rural areas where it is causing havoc – as medics say people are turning to witch doctors to help them.

Dr Ashita Singh, head of medicine at Chinchpada Christian Hospital in a remote part of Maharashtra state where Mumbai is located, said she is seeing increasing numbers of patients arriving with branding marks given to them by witch doctors to drive out ‘spirits’ they believe cause the infection.

Others rely on herbal cures while some have fled their villages out of fear of demons which they believe are spreading the disease, which is helping the infection to spread further and faster.

Those who do seek out help at her hospital – which is only equipped to deal with 80 patients – often come only as a last resort, she added, and are usually too sick to save.  

The crisis is particularly severe in New Delhi, with people dying outside packed hospitals where three people are often forced to share beds. 

Speaking to Radio 4, she said: ‘[There is] a lot of dependence on indigenous medicine, in ancient beliefs.

‘We have a lot of patients who are on our wards right now who have marks on their abdomen because they first went to the witch doctor who gave them hot iron branding in the hope that the evil spirit that is supposed to be causing this illness will be exorcised. 

‘[The witch doctor] is their first port of call, only a small proportion will come to the hospital, most will go to the witch doctor or the indigenous practitioner, who will give them herbal medication for their illnesses.

‘A lot of time is wasted and people come in very late and very sick, and a lot of them never come to the hospital so what we see in the hospital is really just the tip of the iceberg.’ 

Cities and states have rushed to bring in new lockdown measures as the crisis worsens, but there is still no talk of another nationwide lockdown from Prime Minister Modi – who just weeks ago was declaring ‘victory’ over the virus.

Instead, it appears India’s strategy is to try and vaccinate its way out of the crisis, with the government allowing everyone over the age of 18 to book a vaccine via a website from Wednesday.

But the site repeatedly crashed as it received 250,000 clicks per minute, while questions were asked about how quickly India can produce enough shots to cover its 1.4billion population.

On Thursday, Satyendar Jain – the health minister of Delhi which is one of the worst-affected cities – warned he has ‘no vaccines’ left and has not been given a schedule for when more are likely to be delivered.

‘We don’t have vaccines as of now. We have made requests to the company regarding vaccines, we will tell you when it comes,’ he said.

Until lockdowns slow the infection or enough people are vaccinated to stop the virus spreading, its is unlikely that India’s crisis will ease.

The explosion in infections, blamed in part on a new virus variant as well as mass political and religious events, has overwhelmed hospitals with dire shortages of beds, drugs and oxygen. 

Despite rallies being blame as one of the causes of infection, India has pushed ahead with state elections – packing people into polling stations with little thought to social distancing.

Many in rural parts of the state failed to observe social distancing rules, with some wearing masks but others hanging them loosely on their chins or from their ears.

Sporadic violence was reported from several constituencies, with crude bombs thrown and vehicles damaged.

Thousands have been killed in political violence in West Bengal over the decades, and this year’s polls – held in eight phases over the course of a month – have also triggered deadly clashes between rival parties.

Winning power in the state of 90 million would be a major victory for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which is seeking to end a decade of rule by the state’s firebrand leader Mamata Banerjee.

Nearly 8.5 million people are eligible to vote in the eighth phase of polling in the state. Results will be released on May 2.

By mid-afternoon, turnout was being reported at 70 per cent – meaning some 6million people had attended polling stations. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party have faced criticism over the last few weeks for holding huge election rallies in the state, which health experts suggest might have driven the surge there too. Other political parties also participated in rallies. 

The state recorded more than 17,000 cases in the last 24 hours – its highest spike since the pandemic began.

The government’s chief scientific advisor K Vijay Raghavan admitted more could have done to prepare for the second wave, in an interview with the Indian Express newspaper.

‘There were major efforts by central and state governments in ramping up hospital and healthcare infrastructure during the first wave… But as that wave declined, so perhaps did the sense of urgency to get this completed,’ he said.

He added that tests which showed a high level of natural antibodies in the population led scientists to predict that the second wave, if it came, would be smaller than the first and move much slower – when in fact the opposite has proved to be true.

Asked why scientists got it so wrong, Mr Raghavan admitted there is no clear-cut answer – but a drop-off in natural immunity, poor data collection which led scientists to make bad assumptions, and immunity-busting variants are all likely to blame.

But, seeking to defend the government’s response, he said that even if preparation efforts had continued at the same pace they did during the first wave, India’s healthcare system would still not have been prepared for this.

‘If the requirements were in the same range as in the first wave, it could have been handled,’ he said. 

People wait to cast their votes outside a polling station as India pushes ahead with elections despite the Covid crisis

People wait to cast their votes outside a polling station as India pushes ahead with elections despite the Covid crisis

Women wearing masks but failing to observe social distancing wait in line to vote in the final round of elections in West Bengal, which are being held today despite the Covid crisis

Women wearing masks but failing to observe social distancing wait in line to vote in the final round of elections in West Bengal, which are being held today despite the Covid crisis

Catholic nuns line up to vote in West Bengal, where 8.5million are eligible to cast their votes today with turnout over 50 per cent by midday, according to local media

Catholic nuns line up to vote in West Bengal, where 8.5million are eligible to cast their votes today with turnout over 50 per cent by midday, according to local media

A priest and a relative of a person who died from Covid pray next to the body before the burial, at a graveyard in New Delhi

A priest and a relative of a person who died from Covid pray next to the body before the burial, at a graveyard in New Delhi

A family member places flowers inside the coffin of a person who died from Covid in Delhi, as the virus runs rampant

A family member places flowers inside the coffin of a person who died from Covid in Delhi, as the virus runs rampant

Relatives wearing PPE pray before the burial of persons who died from coronavirus at a graveyard in New Delhi

Relatives wearing PPE pray before the burial of persons who died from coronavirus at a graveyard in New Delhi

Relatives lower the body of a person who died from coronavirus into a pit at a graveyard in Delhi

Relatives lower the body of a person who died from coronavirus into a pit at a graveyard in Delhi

A cremation ground in New Delhi is prepared for the mass burning of the bodies of Covid victims

A cremation ground in New Delhi is prepared for the mass burning of the bodies of Covid victims

An exhausted cremation workers slumps to the ground in between shifts burning the bodies of Covid victims in Bengaluru

An exhausted cremation workers slumps to the ground in between shifts burning the bodies of Covid victims in Bengaluru

A female cremation worker helps to construct temporary platforms to burn the bodies of Covid victims in Bengaluru, India

A female cremation worker helps to construct temporary platforms to burn the bodies of Covid victims in Bengaluru, Indi

India DOES have enough oxygen – the real problem is transporting it

India’s acute oxygen shortage has become a defining feature of its second wave of Covid, with people forced to buy it on the black market for thousands of dollars per tank as supplies run short. 

But analysis say the country does actually produce enough to cover its needs – around 7,000 tonnes a day – and the real problem is not the supply but distributing it to the areas where it is needed.

Most of India’s oxygen producers are located in the east, where it is mainly used in industry, but infection centres like Mumbai and Delhi are in the west and north meaning it has to be transported there.

But transporting oxygen is difficult – it has to be carried as a liquid in special cryogenic tankers and India has a shortage of them.

It also has to be moved by road or rail, meaning the process of transporting it is slow, because it is too dangerous to fly with.  

‘The supply chain has to be tweaked to move medical oxygen from certain regions which have excess supply to regions which need more supply,’ the head of one of India’s biggest medical oxygen suppliers Inox Air Products, Siddharth Jain, told AFP.

Meanwhile, many hospitals do not have on-site oxygen plants, often because of poor infrastructure, a lack of expertise and high costs.

Late last year, India issued tenders for on-site oxygen plants for hospitals. But the plans were never actioned, local media report.

 

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‘You can build about 20-50 per cent more capacity in one year in some locations. Even there, lack of personnel will soon debilitate the response. A five-fold increase in capacity cannot be built in a year.’ 

Dr Suvrankar Datta, general secretary of the Federation of All India Medical Association, told the BBC that it may take up to two months for the crisis to peak – and even then it is likely that infections will plateau rather than fall, meaning hospitals and clinics will continue to be overrun. 

In the meantime, funeral pyres will have to keep burning day and night to dispose of the huge number of bodies, with cremation workers and grave diggers forced to work all hours to keep up. 

Two or three months into the COVID-19 crisis, Mumbai gravedigger Sayyed Munir Kamruddin stopped wearing personal protective equipment and gloves.

‘I’m not scared of COVID, I’ve worked with courage. It’s all about courage, not about fear,’ said the 52-year-old, who has been digging graves in the city for 25 years.

India is in the midst of a second wave of coronavirus infections that has seen at least 300,000 people test positive each day for the past week, and its COVID-19 death toll rise past 18 million.

Health systems and crematoriums have been overwhelmed. In Delhi, ambulances have been taking the bodies of COVID-19 victims to makeshift crematoriums in parks and parking lots, where bodies are burned on rows and rows of funeral pyres.

Kamruddin says he and his colleagues are working around the clock to bury COVID-19 victims.

‘This is our only job. Getting the body, removing it from the ambulance, and then burying it,’ he said, adding that he hasn’t had a holiday in a year.

Though it is the middle of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Kamruddin told Reuters his trying job and the hot weather has kept him from fasting.

‘My work is really hard,’ he said. ‘I feel thirsty for water. I need to dig graves, cover them with mud, need to carry dead bodies. With all this work, how can I fast?’

Yet Kamruddin’s faith keeps him going, and he doesn’t expect aid from the government anytime soon.

‘Our trust in our mosque is very strong,’ he said. ‘The government is not going to give us anything. We don’t even want anything from the government.’ 

Elsewhere, Oxfam India CEO Amitabh Behar told ITV that complacency after the first wave of infections led to the devastating second wave.

‘I think this has happened because of arrogance,’ he said. 

A COVID-19 patient waits in an ambulance outside a hospital in Jaipur as India's healthcare system buckles due to Covid

A COVID-19 patient waits in an ambulance outside a hospital in Jaipur as India’s healthcare system buckles due to Covid

A patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, under a tent installed along the roadside in Ghaziabad, India

A patient breathes with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, under a tent installed along the roadside in Ghaziabad, India

Patients breathe with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, in Ghaziabad

Patients breathe with the help of oxygen provided by a Gurdwara, a place of worship for Sikhs, in Ghaziabad

Beds are seen in an indoor stadium converted into a COVID-19 care facility in Srinagar, India

Beds are seen in an indoor stadium converted into a COVID-19 care facility in Srinagar, India

An employee fills oxygen cylinders inside an oxygen filling centre in Bengaluru, India

An employee fills oxygen cylinders inside an oxygen filling centre in Bengaluru, India

Facebook blocks ‘Modi Resign’ hashtag

Facebook temporarily blocked a hashtag calling on the Indian Prime Minister to resign amid criticism over the country’s Covid response.

Posts containing #ModiResign was blocked for several hours on Wednesday, before being restored.

A Facebook spokesman said the move was made ‘in error’, but did not say whether that was by a human moderator or machine algorithm.

‘We temporarily blocked this hashtag by mistake, not because the Indian government asked us to, and have since restored it,’ the spokesman said. 

It comes days after Twitter revealed it had complied with a request from the Indian government to block posts that were critical of its Covid response.

Ministers said the posts were factually inaccurate, and were taken down to stop panic being spread. 

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‘In February we announced to the world that we had defeated Corona, we have not been doing Covid appropriate behaviour – people were coming to elections in their hundreds and thousands, we’ve had religious gatherings with hundreds of people coming together and we did not prepare… we did not do that, and this is where we are.’

Meanwhile the US has confirmed it will send more than $100 million in supplies to Covid-ravaged India, including nearly one million instant tests on a first flight.

The White House said the first flight would arrive Thursday in New Delhi on a military plane, days after President Joe Biden promised to step up assistance to the emerging US ally.

The first shipment includes 960,000 rapid tests, which can detect Covid in 15 minutes, and 100,000 N95 masks for frontline health workers, the US Agency for International Development said.

The White House said total aid on flights in the coming days would be worth more than $100 million and include 1,000 refillable oxygen cylinders and 1,700 concentrators that produce oxygen for patients from the air.

‘Just as India sent assistance to the United States when our hospitals were strained early in the pandemic, the United States is determined to help India in its time of need,’ a White House statement said.

The White House said it was also sending supplies to India to produce more than 20 million vaccine doses.

The supplies are being diverted from US orders to produce the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has not been approved for use in the United States.

The White House had promised Sunday to free up material to let India produce Covishield, its low-cost version of AstraZeneca, after criticism that the United States was hogging supply even as it succeeds with mass vaccination.

Biden said Monday that the United States would also ship overseas up to 60 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses that have already been manufactured, but it remained unclear how many would go to India.

Meanwhile, the US advised its citizens to leave India as soon as possible to avoid getting caught up in the chaos, advising them that its ability to provide assistance has been severely limited by the crisis. 

Nations have rushed supplies to India as it contends with one of the world’s most catastrophic surges of Covid-19 since the pandemic began, overwhelming hospitals and pushing crematoriums past capacity.

The devastation comes even though India is a leading producer of vaccines.

A couple wearing full PPE take part in a traditional marriage ceremony in Madhya Pradesh state

A couple wearing full PPE take part in a traditional marriage ceremony in Madhya Pradesh state

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