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Delhi Covid Crisis: As Death Toll Spirals, Corpses Wait in 20-hr Queues at Crematoriums

Bodies lined up for cremation at Subhash Nagar Crematorium in New Delhi. (PTI)

Bodies lined up for cremation at Subhash Nagar Crematorium in New Delhi. (PTI)

Shaking Delhi's spirit and soul, an unimaginable tragedy is unfolding at New Delhi's crematoriums.

Under the high tin roof, 50 funeral pyres burned fiercely on Tuesday, the hot air filled with smoke, fine ash and muted sobs of shell-shocked families. Nearby, lying unattended on the floor, and in scores of parked vehicles, more corpses awaited their turn, which relatives were told would come 16 to 20 hours later.

Shaking Delhi’s spirit and soul, an unimaginable tragedy is unfolding at New Delhi’s crematoriums struggling to cope with the deluge of the dead arriving at frightening pace. “I have not seen such a bad situation ever before in my life. People are moving with the dead bodies of their loved ones from pillar to post … almost all Delhi crematoriums are flooded with dead bodies," Vineeta Massey, the owner of Massey Funerals, told PTI.

3,601 people have died this month, of them 2,267 in the last seven days alone in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic which is terrorising and tormenting the city. In all of February, the death toll was 57, and in March 117. As if the trauma of losing a loved one to the virus so suddenly is not enough, there is more grief in store for relatives who are not even able to give them a proper send-off.

They arrive at crematoriums with bodies,only to be turned away. They drive to another facility, and yet another, traversing the city with the mortal remains in personal cars or ambulances, desperately seeking a graceful exit for their father, mother, son or daughter from the material world. The trauma is no less for the relatives of those who died of non-Covid causes but are being swept up in the collective national tragedy driven by the pandemic.

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Aman Arora, a young entrepreneur from West Delhi’s Ashok Nagar, lost his father M.L. Arora to a heart attack on Monday afternoon. “We rushed him to many private hospitals when he started feeling discomfort in his chest but he was not even checked by the medical staff there. They demanded that we produce a Covid-negative report. He eventually passed away," said Aman.

On Monday afternoon, Aman was told by the staff in west Delhi’s Subhash Nagar crematorium to wait until Tuesday morning to perform the last rites. When Aman realised there was no point in pleading, hear ranged for a refrigerator to prevent his father’s dead body from decaying.

“What could I have done when there was no space?We kept the body in a rented fridge and have come early today (Tuesday)," said Aman, waiting for his turn as many other people milled around silently with dead bodies lying on the floor. Outside, ambulances and cars honked and competed for parking space but inside all one could hear was the crackling of dry wood from the burning pyres — all 50 of them roaring simultaneously.

A few sobs arose over the sound of the fires, and one could hear the unemotional intonations of instructions being given by the crematorium staff. “Apna dead body uthao aur udhar line mein ja ke khade ho jao (Pick up your dead body and go stand in line)," said a young staffer.

A woman in her 40s was so stunned she couldn’t make out what was ‘nabhi’ (navel) or ‘chhati’ (chest) when a staff member asked her to place sandalwood sticks on the body of her father who had died of Covid. The body was still packed in a white sack, which was placed on the pyre without opening. Holding the sandal wood sticks in trembling hands, she moved around the body before being helped by someone.

“I didn’t even see the face of my father,"wailed the woman, who was alone. Manmeet Singh, a 40-year-old assistant professor, also carried his father Gurpal Singh’s dead body in his car to the Subhash Nagar crematorium on Monday afternoon. But the staff politely told him his father couldn’t be cremated because the pyre chambers were already full and the CNG crematorium at the centre could only accommodate two bodies at one time.

It takes about 90 minutes to dispose of one body in a CNG chamber and a PTI correspondent counted 24 bodies waiting in queue for a slot. With no option left, Manmeet left for the MCD crematorium in Pashchim Vihar about six kilometres away and luckily got space with the help of an MCD inspector.

“If you can’t provide oxygen to the patients in hospitals, then at least provide some space in the cremation ground so that people leave the world comfortably," said Manmeet. The ground at the crematorium was full of filth and covered with left overs of the previous cremation. It was muddy and rotten fruits were scattered all over. Plastic bags, sacks, buckets, mugs littered the ground. But none of that mattered to the relatives.What mattered was enough space to light a pyre.

According to rules, said a senior official at the Delhi Health Department, if somebody dies of COVID-19 in hospital, the district administration has to arrange a hearse van, and the hospital is supposed to deploy staff for the disposal of the dead body at the crematorium and graveyard. But the crush of the dead has made it impossible for hospitals to provide hearses. So relatives are simply taking the bodies in their vehicles.

“If family members move with the body of their loved ones in their personal vehicles, there are chances of being infected," another government official said.

Ajeet, a staff member at the MCD crematorium, told PTI they have created more than 100 extra makeshift chambers in an adjacent space to accommodate the increasing number of dead people — both COVID-19 and natural deaths.

“I can’t move my arms, I am dead tired.

The whole day we arrange for cremation and then in the night we have to take care of the pyres, so that the fire consumes the bodies properly," said Ajeet.

The chaos at the crematoriums has raised questions about the Delhi government’s preparedness for the second wave, which Chief Minister Arvind Kerjriwal said, had left the healthcare system on the brink of collapse.

Many deaths have also been attributed to a severe oxygen shortage for the last 10 days.

The fixing of responsibility will happen later.

But for now, “this is the time for us to build solidarity and enough compassion for the poor people fighting the pandemic," said Harsh Mander, a former IAS bureaucrat who is now a civil rights activist.

“The wealthy and the influential thought that they have an escape route to all this but this pandemic told us that we are all in this together," he said.

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first published:April 27, 2021, 20:14 IST