Till June 8, Bihar was among those states in the country which reported low death toll from coronavirus despite the fact that the number of cases recorded was quite high. Hence, the new figures the Bihar government released on June 9 including an additional 3,951 Covid deaths, which were previously left unreported earlier, came as a rude shock for many. With this, the casualties from the pandemic dramatically rose to 9,429.
Going by the way the state government has kept the public in the dark all this while on the casualties amidst mounting death toll what is the guarantee that the latest figures are not been forged. It is, therefore, plausible to doubt the veracity of the government report. The actual death count may be much higher than what the official data across the country projected. Several media reports as also experts have expressed this apprehension.
According to sources, the Bihar Health Department updated the Covid death figures in duress only after the Patna High Court issued an order to this effect. On 17 May during a hearing on a public interest litigation (PIL) on alleged covid-19 mismanagement, two officials representing the government presented different figures for deaths in Buxar district in the court. While one official said six people died of coronavirus between March 1 and May 13 in the district, the other said 789 bodies were cremated at one crematorium of the district alone.
Intrigued by the obviously misleading figures, the court ordered the government to prepare a data on the deaths afresh. Consequently, the additional health secretary of the Health Department, Pratyaya Amrit, formed a committee at district, block and panchayat level to enumerate covid deaths afresh. The revised figures on covid deaths released on June 9 are the result of this effort.
Amrit claimed the data has been presented after thorough investigation by the district level team. Sources have indicated that the Health Department might take action against the officials found guilty of tampering with the death toll.
According to the revised figures, while almost all the districts of the state have recorded spike in the deaths, three districts, namely Saharsa, Kaimur and Begusarai, have shown the highest increase. In Kaimur district of south Bihar adjoining Uttar Pradesh, the death toll due to coronavirus was 44 till June 8, which increased by 231.8 percent to 146. In Begusarai, the number of people who died of coronavirus till 8 June was 138, which after revision reached 454 (228.9 percent increase) on 9 June. The death toll from coronavirus in Saharsa was 40 till June 8, which increased by 225 percent to 130 after the revision. The death toll from coronavirus in Patna, the capital of Bihar, was 1229 till June 8, which increased to 2303 on June 9.
Death count mounts
According to the data collected by this correspondent from cremation grounds in Patna city, as many as 2,941 corpses of covid victims were disposed off between April 1 and May 20 in the crematoriums of Patna Municipal Corporation area while official figures showed only 650 corona deaths for this period. In view of the discrepancy in the data if the figures provided by the crematoriums are taken into account, the toll will increase manifold.
As regards the revised figures, several district-level health officials this scribe spoke to hinted that the actual death toll could be higher.
Dr. Umesh Sharma, the civil surgeon in Bhagalpur district, said, “The data handed over to the Health Department was collected from private hospitals to villages. Yet the chances of some cases not reaching us cannot be denied. Some people who were tested positive for coronavirus at the hospital went into home isolation. It is possible that they died a few days later. We will get these figures only when the relatives of the dead come to us.”
Besides, the Health Department report does not cover those who died on the way. If they had reached the hospital, they too could have been figured in the statistics on the covid dead.
A block-level health official of Arwal district said on condition of anonymity that the death toll could rise in the coming days as the data from the rural areas is yet to come. “The other day two people approached me with covid positive test reports of their family members who had died of Covid-19,” he said.
An official of the Health Department disclosed that earlier only those covid deaths could make it to the government data which were available on its portal. Hence, the covid deaths occurred in private hospitals, villages and those covid victims cremated at crematoriums could not find mention in the government records.
The slow pace in compensation
The Bihar Government is providing Rs 4 lakh compensation to the close relatives of those who died of coronavirus. But the pace with which the scheme is operating is so sluggish that till February 11 this year, only 1,473 families could receive the ex gratia amount while 11, 9466 people have died due to coronavirus infections till June according to a Right to Information (RTI) reply.
A 19-year-old boy, Prakash Kumar, who was admitted to Sri Krishna Medical College & Hospital (SKMCH) of Muzaffarpur on April 13 died on 21 April. His elder brother Chhedi Pandit applied for compensation with all the documents required under the scheme. A month has passed since; he has not got the compensation as yet.
“Although I have submitted the application with my brother’s death certificate, his Covid-19 test report, Aadhar card details, address proof etc. a month ago, there is no communication from district officials regarding compensation,” bemoaned Pandit.
His brother Prakash, who was working as a confectioner at a sweet shop in Uttar Pradesh, had visited his village on March 29. After a few days, he complained of fever, breathing problems, and chest pain. He was shifted to Aurai Primary Health Centre (PHC) where he was diagnosed with coronavirus in an antigen test.
The PHC referred the case to SKMCH where Prakash died on the morning of 21 April. The doctor attending on him told Chhedi Pandit that his brother was suffering from severe chest infections.
Apart from the routine official delays, government rules for the compensation are so rigid that genuine candidates are deprived of financial assistance. A Health Department official said, “Apart from the documents related to the beneficiaries, two documents are mandatory for compensation – covid positive test report and death certificate. If these two documents are not accompanied by the application, one won’t be able to get the compensation at any cost.”
Many people with symptoms of coronavirus died before the covid test in rural areas. Their relatives are unlikely to get compensation. Experts say the government should review the compensation procedure and include other test reports as optional documents if a patient had covid negative report but died with the symptoms of the infection.
A Muzaffarpur-based pediatrician, Dr.Arun Shah, said in the second wave, the virus changed its nature due to which in many cases the antigen and RT-PCR tests were negative yet patients had clear symptoms of Covid-19.
“Considering this factor,” he suggested, “the government must include HRCT scan (high-resolution computerized tomography scan), C-reactive protein, and other tests as alternative documents if one’s RT-PCR or antigen test report is negative as many covid patients results were negative for the virus, but they had a chest infection which led to their death.”
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The opinion expressed in the article is of the writer. Writer is a freelance journalist/journalist based in Delhi