In the past two weeks, several villages in the country have reported loss of life due to COVID-19 like symptoms. With no testing, district administrations dismiss these as ‘natural deaths’, even though villagers say otherwise. Experts claim India is underreporting COVID deaths.
While cases of people dying in the second wave of the pandemic increases every day, there is still a degree of denial in rural India that the deaths could be because of COVID19. Photo: Twitter/ Aimim_Raebareli
Suresh Singh is distraught. His village, Titauli in Rohtak district, Haryana has been seeing an unprecedented number of people losing their lives in the past few days, ostensibly from ‘fever’. “In the past ten days, there have been forty deaths in the village,” Suresh told Gaon Connection. Even today (May 10) one person died, he said.
According to Suresh, of those who died, only 10-12 had been tested for the coronavirus. “There are three or four people dying every day and everyone had symptoms of corona, but only a few reached out to a doctor,” he added.
Strangely, while Suresh said the number of deaths in his village was about 40 in the past 10 days, official figures from the Haryana government peg it at a lot less.
“There have been only five deaths at Titauli village. If they are saying it is forty, I will find out,” Anil Birla, chief medical officer (CMO), Rohtak district, told Gaon Connection. He added that many people had lost their lives because of other health problems, like a bad heart or jaundice.
Birla continued, that since the pandemic began last year, the number of deaths in Haryana till May 9 was 5,605 of which Rohtak district recorded 236 deaths.
Meanwhile, it is only now that a medical team has reached Titauli village to conduct the COVID19 testing. “I wish this had been done earlier; maybe lives would have been spared then,” said a dejected Suresh.
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While the pandemic first broke out last year, it was limited to urban India. Rural parts of the country were relatively unaffected by the coronavirus. However, the second wave has shown no such discrimination and village upon village is reporting infections and deaths. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 249,992 people have died across India due to the virus.
However, most of the deaths in rural India are not reflected in the official data because either testing is not being done, or people are reluctant to step up and get tested.
“Most of the data we have on corona is from cities,” Ravi Duggal, Mumbai-based health worker, who is also associated with Jan Swasthya Abhiyan (a people’s movement working for health rights), told Gaon Connection.
Duggal went on to say that the health infrastructure in rural India was deplorable and there were inadequate testing facilities in the villages. “So people are dying in villages and that is not registering in any official data,” he explained. “If records of people dying in villages were maintained, the tally would be much higher,” he said.
About 960 kilometres away Suresh’s village in Rohtak, in Uttar Pradesh’s Sauram gram panchayat in Ghazipur district, 16 people died in the last ten days. The gram pradhan Seema Jaiswal, wrote to the district magistrate on May 10, furnishing the names of those who had died. Consequently, a team from the health department was sent to Sauram and commenced testing of the village inhabitants.
When Gaon Connection tried to get in touch with Seema Jaiswal, she was not available. Instead her husband, Manoj Kumar Jaiswal answered the phone. “We lost sixteen people in a week to ten days. None of them had got themselves tested and all of them had cold and fever,” he said, adding that many of the older people died at home and some others at the hospital. “Today, (May 10) a team has come to the village and people are being tested,” he added.
In Gulabganj village, Rajasthan, on May 7, 58-year-old anaganwadi worker, Manju Devi developed a fever. She went to a private hospital the following day and was given some medicines. According to Manju Devi’s nephew Govind Vaishnav, the doctor also told them that in case her condition did not improve, she should be taken to the nearest government hospital, as facilities like oxygen would be available to her there.
Manju’s condition did deteriorate and she went to a nearby government hospital on May 9. “But within 10 minutes of getting there, bua (aunt) breathed her last,” Vaishnav told Gaon Connection. Sirohi district, where Manju Devi lived, has seen several deaths in the past 20 days. They all displayed COVID 19-like symptoms of coughs, colds and fever, and none of them had been tested, said Vaishnav.
Gulabganj, with a population of about 3,000, has already had 17 deaths, all in the space of a fortnight or so.
“There have been seventy nine deaths due to COVID 19, in Sirohi district in the last one year up till now,” Rajesh Kumar, Chief Medical and Health Officer CMHO), Sirohi district, told Gaon Connection. He dismissed the statistics of people dying in villages as ‘deaths due to natural causes’. “Every death is being attributed to coronavirus. If the elderly are dying, that is also being reported as death due to coronavirus,” he said.
While cases of people dying in the second wave of the pandemic increases every day, there is still a degree of denial in rural India that the deaths could be because of COVID 19. In many villages, people are refusing to even get tested.
A case in point is Kanakpura village in Deoria district in Uttar Pradesh. In the last 10 to 12 days the village has seen nine deaths. Yet, there has been no testing and the people have died without treatment, Avinash Kumar who lost his mother and his aunt in the space of a few days.
“On May 1, my mother passed away. She had a fever and on our way to the hospital at Deoria, she went breathless and died,” Avinash Kumar, told Gaon Connection. Three others had died in the village before this and all of them seemed to have had symptoms of COVID-19, he said. None of them were tested.
Meanwhile, two days ago, on May 9, an aunt of Avinash also passed away after showing the same symptoms. “With my aunt and my mother, the number of people dead in my village is nine,” he said.
Almost every home in the village has two to three people with fever, said Avinash. “But even after so many deaths, people are gathering for the death ceremonies. I opposed having any such ceremony at my home and my family agreed, but that is not the case in other homes,” he worried.
When Gaon Connection contacted Jayant Narlikar, commissioner of Gorakhpur division, he said: “We have no such information of the deaths in the village. Please send us the details, we will find out from the district magistrate.”
Gaon Connection attempted to get in touch with the district magistrate and the chief medical officer of Deoria for their comments, but both were unavailable for a response.
The office of CMO of Deoria informed that till May 10, the number of Covid 19 deaths recorded since the start of the pandemic in the district was 163. This includes the deaths of patients in the hospitals.
The condition is similar in most parts of the country. Social worker Gaus Sheikh, of Latur, Maharashtra said since the first week of April, till May 10, he had performed the last rites of 163 people. “At least fifty of these people who had lost their lives were from villages,” Sheikh told Gaon Connection. Most of them, he was told by the relatives, had complained of fever, cold and cough before they succumbed.
It was so different last year, he said when there were hardly any deaths in villages.
“I work in villages in a fifty kilometre radius and things are bad. Almost every day I cremate someone. Almost every home in the villages has someone who is unwell,” he said.