The directions on the doctors’ duty rota at Murshidabad Medical College Hospital were quite clear. Printed beneath the list of shifts were instructions on what to do if a patient died of Covid-19 while in the West Bengal hospital.
“In case of Covid positive – No mention of Covid in death certificate,” the order said. The rota leaked to the Telegraph is part of a deliberate strategy by the Indian state of West Bengal to hide the scale of deaths from the new coronavirus, doctors claim.
Medics are being told not to test patients who may have Covid-19 symptoms, while someone can only be classified as having died from the disease by a secretive committee made up of government-appointed doctors.
Similar subterfuge is alleged to be underway in other parts of India, as states lie about their death tolls so ruling parties can point-score against political rivals over their containment of the virus.
The cover-ups are endangering the public and skewing tallies of the real toll of the disease, doctors say. Meanwhile in neighbouring Pakistan, doctors told the Telegraph that deaths were being undercounted because of stigma around the disease and public resentment at strict burial regulations.
People were unwilling to go to hospital with even severe Covid-19 symptoms because if they died, mourners at their funeral would be strictly limited. As a result people were choosing to die unrecorded at home, doctors said.
Five months since the emergence of the new disease, the lack of large numbers of deaths in South Asia has been one of the biggest puzzles of the global pandemic.
Pakistan and India, which between them are home to a fifth of humanity, were expected to be dangerously vulnerable. Poor healthcare, densely populated cities, communal living and existing lung disease were expected to make the countries particularly susceptible. Instead, official death tolls have been surprisingly low.
While deaths are continuing to gradually mount in each nation, neither country has seen the exponential take-off in fatalities witnessed in countries including America, the UK and now Brazil. By May 22, India had reported only 3,435 deaths and Pakistan only 1,017 compared with 95,000 in America.
The difference has led ministers to conclude the virus is somehow acting less virulently, perhaps due to a younger population, or the heat. But doctors on both sides of the border told the Telegraph that significant numbers of deaths may also have been hidden, either deliberately, or because they are not being picked up in official statistics.
A doctor working in a government hospital in North Bengal’s Cooch Behar district said: “We were ordered to strictly refrain from using the word ‘Corona’ in the death certificates until it gets a nod from the state government’s opaque committee.
“This is a violation of directives given by the World Health Organisation. Our chief minister is treating this pandemic as gastroenteritis or a headache which gets cured on its own. She forgets that the more we hide the numbers, the more we are risking the lives of the even larger section of society.”
Another doctor in South Bengal claimed Kolkata medical colleges and hospitals were unofficially instructed by the state government to perform low testing, to reduce the recorded number of Covid cases. Doctors said they would lose their jobs if they challenged the instruction or complained in public.
Residents near the city of Barrackpore, 30 miles north of Kolkata, accuse officials of using the local crematorium in the middle of the night to secretly dispose of bodies. Local people fearing infection have begun a 24-hour neighbourhood watch after individuals wearing protective equipment (PPE) turned up at 1.30am to bring a dead body to the Rashmoni Ghat crematorium.
“It was 1.30am when two individuals wearing PPE arrived with a dead body to the crematorium. Although they claimed that the person had died of diabetes, they had no answer for why were they wearing PPE to cremate a diabetic patient,” explained one resident. A surge in deaths had meant a steep rise in bodies to cremate, a worker in a Kolkata crematorium said.
“Each body takes three hours to burn completely, and we used to cremate 15 to 20 bodies usually in a week, prior to the arrival of Covid. But now we receive that number of dead bodies in a single day. If this situation continues, then I am afraid that the furnace will eventually breakdown due to its overuse.”
The huge amounts of power needed to run the furnace meant officials have instead begun burying bodies, he said.