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Dispatch From India, Where COVID Corpses Burn Around The Clock

The raging COVID-19 epidemic, combined with an acute shortage of oxygen, has created a nightmare scenario in places like Nashik, in the northern part of Maharashtra state.

Burning pyres at a crematorium in New Delhi
Burning pyres at a crematorium in New Delhi
Nazia Sayed

NASHIK — Neeta waits patiently for her number to be called, so that she can bid a final farewell to her father and go back home. It's already been four hours since she came to the Amar Dham crematorium, where there is a backlog of bodies waiting to be cremated. One of those belongs to Neeta's father, Yashwant Koladkar, who died in a hospital in Nashik, due to lack of oxygen, after fighting a severe COVID-19 infection for six days.

The cremation staff has been working according to a numbering system. "Mera number nahi aaya ab tak (My number hasn't come yet)," says Neeta, who seems to be frustrated now. More than the grief of losing her father, it's the wait that's troubling her. She just wants to get it over with and leave.

The queue to cremate is a daily sight over here. At any given time, 10 or more pyres burn while others queue up for the last rites of their loved ones. Most are COVID-19-related deaths. As cases and deaths mount in Maharashtra, Nashik is no different.

The records at the crematorium mention at least 100 bodies being disposed of per day, of which at least 60 are coronavirus-related deaths. And yet, this does not reflect in the government records, which show a daily count of nine or 10 COVID deaths in city and a total of 57 in the district.

We ran out of space, and now we allow the pyres on pavements, open grounds, even the banks of the river.

The crematoriums are so overburdened that they issue token numbers and a booking system for the dead bodies. Amar Dham crematorium, which is the largest in the city, has now allowed the bodies to be burnt on the pavements and roads inside the cremation ground, which has speeded up the process. But then it ran out of firewood.

Nashik is an old pilgrimage town that now is in the throes of change, with a burgeoning wine industry and new developments coming up rapidly. The population stands at over 2 million, making it one of the biggest towns in the state. Like everywhere else, it has been hit extremely hard by the pandemic.

Nashik also has one of the few female morticians around. Sunita Patil has been cremating the dead here for the last 20 years, as did her father and grandfather did before her. She took up the family profession despite the fact that women are not allowed to do this job. There were protests from traditionalists, but she struck the course.

"I haven't seen anything of this sort in my 20 years of service. Earlier we used to cremate about 20 or 25 bodies on a given day but now there are nearly 100 bodies a day. We ran out of space, and now we allow the pyres on pavements, open grounds, even the banks of the river," she says.

Cemetery workers taking a break — Photo: Amarjeet Kumar Singh/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

"My job is to lift the dead bodies and place them on the pyre, wash them, apply ghee and perform their last rites," Sunita adds. "I learned it from my father. None of my other 10 siblings wanted to do this job. But I want to carry my fathers legacy forward and would like my daughter to do so too."

When 24 people died at the Zakir Husain Municipal Hospital due to a leakage in the oxygen tank on April 21, Sunita cremated 13 of them at the Amar Dham crematorium.

Just outside the cremation ground, ambulance driver Manoj Patil had just brought another set of bodies to the crematorium, his fifth trip to Amar Dham that day. Manoj is a wireman in the Nashik Civil Hospital but now is seen driving ambulances and dropping corpses to the cremation ground.

"My ambulance driver ran away. He got scared that he will get infected, so he refused to come for work. I even offered him a raised salary but even that did not help. As a result I have started driving the ambulance," says Manoj.

The situation is very grim.

On an average day, he drops at least 25 to 30 bodies to the crematorium. He says he has come across cases where relatives have abandoned their COVID-19 positive family members and are running away.

"We get calls about dead bodies lying abandoned in apartments, hospitals and roads," Manoy says. "In such a situation, we take the body bags and pack the bodies and then bring them to the crematoriums. My uncle also drives an ambulance and he drops the Muslim bodies to the kabristan while I ferry the Hindu bodies to the shamshaan ghat."

For the past few weeks, Maharashtra has been dealing with a severe shortage of oxygen. Nashik is no different.

In hospitals, relatives wait for their near and dear ones to be admitted. The private hospitals here have run out of oxygen and asked their patients to get themselves shifted to another hospital. A delegation of 20 doctors visited the district magistrate and collector of Nashik last Thursday to plead for oxygen.

A worker fills oxygen cylinders to supply to hospitals for COVID-19 patients — Photo: Abhisek Saha/Le Pictorium Agency via ZUMA Press

Dr. Shodhan Gondkar runs a 50-bed hospital in Nashik city. At least 48 of those patients require oxygen, but the supply he had would have lasted only for two hours. Left with no option, he asked the relatives of the patients to fetch the cylinders themselves.

"I'm helpless. What can I do?" he says. "I have 12 patients on ventilators who are critical and won't survive if the oxygen supply runs out. Even the rest require oxygen. The situation is very grim."

Dr. Gondkar goes on to say that there are about 150 private hospitals in Nashik and nearly 80% of them have run out of oxygen. "The shortage is not only because of the increase in demand for oxygen but also due to the O2 supplying companies who have now started selling their supplies to hospitals which can give them a higher price," he explains.

The government hospitals in Nashik are no better. Though they manage to get their oxygen and medicine supplies, they have no beds left. In Zakir Husain NMC hospital, one of the biggest in Nashik, a board announces there are no beds available.

Naresh Raut, who lost his mother in the oxygen leakage incident in the same hospital, says he regrets getting her admitted here.

He says, "When I admitted my mother she was made to sit in the hospital compound, on a wheelchair with her oxygen cylinder for two days. At nights they would just lay her on a stretcher on the ground and leave her there. On the day the leakage took place, she was given a bed. Unfortunately she died in the incident as the main oxygen line was shut down due to the leak."

In the rural areas around Nashik, the situation is worse. On patient, 35-year-old Arun Mali, died on the steps of a hospital in Chandwad. He needed oxygen but was turned away by three hospitals. Finally he reached Chandwad Trauma Centre where he was asked to wait outside and complete his admission formalities. Within 15 minutes of reaching the hospital, he died on the staircase as his wife looked on helplessly.

The city has witnessed an unprecedented surge in the cases that have risen from 1.28 lakh at the start of March to 2.77 lakh till Sunday. On Sunday, 4,797 suspected COVID-19 patients were admitted in the city out of which 2,931 tested positive. Eleven of them died. And it's getting worse.

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