Bodies of COVID-19 victims have been found dumped in some Indian rivers, a state government said in a letter seen by reporters, the first official acknowledgement of an alarming practice it said might stem from poverty and fear of the disease in villages.
Images of corpses drifting down the Ganges River, which Hindus consider holy, have shocked a nation reeling under the world’s worst surge in infections.
Although media have linked the recent increase in the numbers of such bodies to the COVID-19 pandemic, Uttar Pradesh, home to 240 million people, has until now not publicly revealed the cause of the deaths.
“The administration has information that bodies of those who have succumbed to COVID-19 or any other disease are being thrown into rivers instead of being disposed of as per proper rituals,” senior state official Manoj Kumar Singh on Friday said in a letter to district heads that was reviewed by reporters. “As a result, bodies have been recovered from rivers in many places.”
Singh confirmed the letter to reporters, but said autopsies on four to five bodies in Ghazipur District had not revealed virus infection.
“The bodies are decomposed, so I am not sure in this state it can be found out about corona positive,” he said in a text message.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday urged officials to beef up rural healthcare resources and boost surveillance as the virus spreads rapidly in those areas, after ravaging the cities.
Uttar Pradesh, home to more people than Brazil or Pakistan, has been badly hit by India’s dramatic second surge of COVID-19.
Health experts have said many cases are going undetected in the state’s villages, home to the bulk of its people.
In the memo, Singh said a lack of funds for materials such as firewood for cremation, religious beliefs in some communities and families abandoning victims for fear of the disease were among the likely reasons for the surge in dumping.
He asked village-level officials to ensure no corpses were thrown into water and said the state government would pay poor families 5,000 rupees (US$68) each to cremate or bury the bodies of the dead.
The state has also asked police to patrol rivers to stop the practice.
India has been officially reporting about 4,000 daily deaths from the disease for nearly two weeks, but health experts say the toll is probably much higher because of factors such as poor testing in rural areas.
The jump in deaths has led to backlogs at crematoriums in many places and multiplied the cost of last rites.
On Saturday, Uttar Pradesh government spokesman Navneet Sehgal denied media reports that as many as 2,000 corpses of possible virus victims had been pulled from rivers in the state and neighboring Bihar in the past few days.
“We keep recovering 10 to 20 bodies every now and then,” Sehgal told reporters.
India yesterday reported a smaller rise in daily COVID-19 cases for the third straight day, but the number of deaths in 24 hours was again higher than 4,000, taking the country’s death toll to 270,000.
Deaths grew by 4,077, while infections rose by 311,170 — the smallest rise in daily cases in more than three weeks, Indian Ministry of Health data showed.
Total infections have risen by more than 2 million last week and deaths by nearly 28,000.
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