It was a macabre sight in eastern India along the sacred Ganges River as authorities found scores of bodies floating in the water. India is in the midst of a nightmare surge in coronavirus infections and, while authorities have not determined the cause of death, it seems likely that many of them died of COVID-19.
India’s virus surge has overwhelmed hospitals in big cities and rural areas alike with oxygen being in critically short supply all across the country. No one knows the real death toll. The current official government death toll is 254,000, but it’s universally accepted that the real number is at least three times higher and could be as much as ten times the official number.
On Tuesday, there were more than 348,000 new positive COVID tests, which means the already overworked healthcare workers will get no relief anytime soon.
Images on social media of the bodies floating in the river prompted outrage and speculation that they died from COVID-19. Authorities performed post mortems on Tuesday but said they could not confirm the cause of death due to the decomposition of the bodies.
More corpses were found floating in the river on Tuesday, washing up in Ghazipur district in neighboring Uttar Pradesh state. Police and villagers were at the site, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Monday’s incident.
“We are trying to find out where did these dead bodies come from? How did they get here?” said Mangla Prasad Singh, a local official.
Since cremation is the preferred death ritual and so many people are dying, small towns report they are running out of wood to cremate the bodies. And with so many people dying at home and crematoriums already overwhelmed, “Due to the shortage of wood, the dead are being buried in the water,” said one resident of Ghazipur. “Bodies from around 12-13 villages have been buried in the water.”
People are apparently abandoning their loved ones’ bodies in fear of contracting the disease. And vaccine hesitancy in India is a big problem. Supplies of India’s homegrown vaccines are critical as manufacturers struggle with getting raw materials to make more than a billion doses.
There is no modern equivalent to what’s happening in India during this COVID crisis — at least, not on this scale in an urban environment. We might find parallels to what happened in medieval Europe during the 14th century when the Black Death was coursing through towns and cities. That plague eventually killed between 75 million and 200 million people in Africa and Europe.
The coronavirus pandemic won’t approach killing in those numbers, but it has exposed vulnerabilities in public health system that urgently need to be addressed.