The ruling BJP in Gujarat may have swept under the carpet its government’s ham-fisted Covid-19 management by replacing the chief minister and his entire team, but the ghosts of fudged death numbers have come to haunt it yet again.
And it was a rap from the Supreme Court on its knuckles on November 22 about distributing Covid-19 death compensation that exposed the State Government’s quiet efforts to bury the actual death figures under a maze of procedure.
So, as of now, against the official Covid-19 death toll of 10,095 since the pandemic broke out in 2020, there are as many as 31,575 claimants for the Rs 50,000 death compensation. In simple words, this is almost three times the official death data. And the number is still counting.
Asked about such a huge difference between the numbers, Additional Chief Secretary (Health) Manoj Aggrawal told Vibes of India, “Let all claims be vetted and verified by the respective district collectors before jumping to any conclusion. It is also important to note that the definition of Covid-19 death has changed from the earlier one where the co-morbid patients were not counted, but now the Supreme Court has spelt out its directives.”
On November 22, the Supreme Court reprimanded the Gujarat Government for its “attempt to over-reach” by trying to circumvent the apex court’s October 4 directives about distributing the compensation.
How? In a directive to the National Disaster Management Authority in May, the Supreme Court had clearly directed that those who died due to other complications while being Covid-19 positive would also be eligible to be considered as “died due to Covid-19”.
But, instead of implementing this directive, the Gujarat government on October 29 appointed a Covid-19 Death Ascertaining Committee (CDAC), which would decide the eligibility for compensation where the Medical Certification of Cause of Death (MCCD) of the deceased was either not available with the next of kin or the death certificate does not mention Covid-19.
The Supreme Court shot this down with a direction that anyone who produces evidence like RTPCR, Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) or any other credible medical certificate and had died of Covid-19 within 30 days of this is eligible for the compensation. This, even if the death certificate does not mention Covid-19 as the cause.
In a denial mode all through the Covid-19 crisis, the Gujarat Government had all along maintained that patients with comorbidities would not be considered as Covid-19 deaths.
A senior doctor, associated with the State Government’s very own task force for the pandemic, told Vibes of India, “I may have survived with acute diabetes for 25 years, but if I die of Covid-19, I should be considered a Covid death. If I die of a heart attack while being treated for Covid, I am indeed a Covid death because the virus would have hopelessly weakened my lungs and heart. This is a basic tenet of a transparent public health system.”
When told that the Gujarat Government maintained it was going by the guidelines of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the expert asserted, requesting anonymity, “The ICMR does not say this.”
He is not wrong. Here is what the ICMR says. “COVID-19 is reported to cause pneumonia/acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS)/cardiac injury/disseminated intravascular coagulation and so on. While such complications may lead to death which might be recorded as immediate cause of death, it was likely that Covid-19 had led to such complications” and so Covid-19 must be recorded as the “antecedent cause”. In fact, the ICMR has also said that, “Robust cause of death information in a population is useful for understanding disease burden estimates, and explains trends in the health of populations.”
Here too, the Gujarat Government had wanted to control the data when it constituted district-wise death audit committees in May 2020, which would decide if a patient had died of Covid-19. And this tantamount to circumventing the ICMR guidelines.
The opposition Congress party has been claiming that not less than 3 lakh people succumbed to the deadly virus in Gujarat, using media reports of district-wise death registers.