Scores of COVID-19 Deaths in Bengaluru Missing From State Count
TNM visited crematoriums for COVID-19 victims and found that the number of cremations is much higher than reported.
The total number of COVID-19 deaths reported in Bengaluru city for 18 to 24 April, according to the government records, is 451. But an independent investigation by TNM has revealed that the actual number of COVID-19 deaths in this period is much higher.
In fact, in the crematoriums that are exclusively reserved for the final rites of COVID-19 patients, scores more bodies were cremated on each of these dates.
And while many of these patients may not have received their COVID-19 test result at the time of death, TNM has found that scores of them did indeed have the novel coronavirus.
And despite the results coming in positive post their deaths, the BBMP has not added them to their official bulletins even several days later.
On 23 April, at 4:30 pm, the crematorium at MS Palya in Bengaluru still had a long line of ambulances. From 16 April, the BBMP mandated that all COVID-19 bodies should be taken to seven crematoriums across the city and MS Palya is one of them.
The crematorium with one BBMP staff and 14 crematorium workers on contract, has been working round the clock, without breaks, dividing their work into two shifts.
From 18 April to 22 April, this crematorium has cremated the bodies of 168 people, according to BBMP sources.
TNM visited all seven crematoriums reserved by the BBMP for COVID-19 bodies and also spoke to those who manage the Indian Christian cemetery burial ground and the Jumma Masjid Trust Board burial ground in Nandidurga. We found that the number of bodies being cremated per day in Bengaluru indicates that the state bulletins are not giving the full picture.
Data from BBMP sources that TNM spoke to revealed that this is true — the number of deaths from COVID-19 in Bengaluru is indeed much higher than what is reported.
From 19 April to 22 April, six crematoriums — MS Palya, Kudlu, Peenya, Sumanahalli, Kengeri and Panathur, along with the Christian and Muslim burial ground — cremated 860 bodies. TNM has data of cremations in all these crematoriums. However, the data from Banashankari — a crematorium situated in the busy Bengaluru south — is unavailable.
According to the state bulletin, only 467 people died of COVID-19 in the city in these five days in Bengaluru Urban and Bengaluru Rural combined. Since most of the bodies cremated on a particular day belong to those who died on the previous day, we are adding 60 deaths on 17 April to this total and arrived at 527.
The difference is around 333 deaths (860-527) for five days (and could be more if Banashankari crematorium details are taken into account). TNM is not calling all these 349 deaths as caused by COVID-19, because many of them were not confirmed to be coronavirus positive when they died. However, a large percentage of them are, as revealed by our investigation.
According to a BBMP source, all the bodies that are taken to these crematoriums are marked with either of the two ids — SRF and BU.
SRF or Specimen Referral Form is given when the samples of a patient are sent for COVID-19 testing — the results may not have come when the body was cremated. The BU or Bengaluru Urban code is given when the patient is confirmed to have the coronavirus.
This is why we decided to check SRF numbers, or the number of people who were cremated with their COVID-19 status unknown.
We checked 65 SRF numbers in the portal given by BBMP for finding out test result status.
Forty four people out of these 65 were COVID-19-positive, eight were negative and results were awaited for 13.
Extrapolating this to the whole sample, this means that more than 60 percent of the bodies that were cremated before their COVID-19 results came, did indeed succumb to the infection.
Did BBMP Record the Deaths Later?
The daily bulletins published by the state and the BBMP, do not mention the BU code or SRF for the deceased; they instead list the ‘P code’ of each patient. After a patient tests positive, a Patient Code (P Code) is generated based on the positive report uploaded on the ICMR portal.
We checked the P code of all the 65 SRF numbers in our possession. We then cross-checked the P code in the state bulletins that recorded deaths from 17 April to 26 April to verify if these deaths were included.
Out of the 44 people who were COVID-19 positive, only 10, which is less than one fourth the number, were included in subsequent bulletins. Two of the deceased were marked as having been discharged. This left us to conclude that 34 deaths of the 65 we checked, were not counted as COVID-19 deaths until 26 April.
It is to be remembered here that we have checked only 65 SRF details of more than 300 patients in five days, and we do not have the data from the Banashankari crematorium.
The bodies that have only SRF ids are also brought to these crematoriums in the same way as bodies of COVID-19 patients are — wrapped in plastic sheets — and the last rites are conducted by people wearing PPE suits.
Dr Vijendra Bilaguli, Chief Health Officer of the BBMP reacted to TNM’s findings and said, “We do have the data of all the deaths in BBMP jurisdiction. What happens is sometimes when the information comes late, we give it to the state. We are sure that we know 90 percent of the deaths happening in hospitals in BBMP jurisdiction or in our radars.”
He however told TNM to send all the SRF numbers in our possession, so that he could cross-check the reconciliation. Another senior BBMP officer, too, offered to do the same.
Another BBMP official told TNM that the disparity in numbers could be because of a delay in data or because many of these people may have passed away in their homes.
Questions That BBMP Must Answer
Is there a proper monitoring by the BBMP of the number of deaths caused by COVID-19 in the city?
There have been instances where bulletins have recorded deaths that happened even 15 days before. But are all deaths reconciled in this manner? Is there a system or committee that looks at this, like the one Tamil Nadu has?
If there is, then why are deaths not recorded in the bulletins as soon as the results arrive? If a public portal has the information of COVID-19 status, surely the BBMP has the details as well?
Is it a deliberate attempt to mislead the public about the severity of the disease, or is the BBMP missing hundreds of deaths due to incompetence and poor data management?
(With inputs Vignesh Vellore)
(Published in an arrangement with The News Minute.)
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