India records fewer new Covid-19 cases, but daily death toll still above 4,000

Prime Minister Modi urges more rural healthcare resources as the virus spreads rapidly in those areas

Several bodies are seen buried in shallow graves on the banks of Ganges river in Prayagraj, India. Saturday, May 15, 2021. Police are reaching out to villagers in northern India to investigate the recovery of bodies buried in shallow sand graves or washing up on the Ganges River banks, prompting speculation on social media that they were the remains of COVID-19 victims. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)
Powered by automated translation

India reported a smaller rise in daily coronavirus cases for a third day in a row on Sunday, but the number of deaths in 24 hours was higher than 4,000, taking the overall death toll to 270,000.

Deaths rose by 4,077, while infections rose by 311,170 – the smallest daily increase in cases in more than three weeks, Health Ministry data showed.

Total infections rose by more than two million in the week, and deaths by nearly 28,000.

A second wave of infections hit Indian in February, putting hospitals and medical staff under pressure.

The number of cases has fallen steadily in places hit by the initial surge in infections. These include western Maharashtra state and the Delhi capital region, where stringent lockdowns were imposed.

Federal health officials said on Saturday that the overall rate of positive results from tests had dipped to 19.8 per cent from 21.9 per cent in the previous week, leading to hope that infections have started to stabilise.

But surges were reported in states such as Tamil Nadu in the south and in rural areas.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged officials on Saturday to strengthen rural healthcare resources and boost surveillance as the virus spreads rapidly in those areas, after ravaging the cities.

Bodies of Covid-19 victims have been dumped in some Indian rivers, a state government said in a letter seen by Reuters, the first official acknowledgement of a practice it said may stem from poverty and fear of the disease in villages.

Images of corpses drifting down the Ganges river, which Hindus consider holy, shocked a nation reeling from the world's worst surge in infections.

Although media have linked the bodies to the pandemic, the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, home to 240 million people, has not publicly revealed the cause of death.

"The administration has information that bodies of those who have succumbed to Covid-19 or any other disease are being thrown into rivers instead of being disposed of in proper rituals," a senior state official, Manoj Kumar Singh, said in a May 14 letter to district heads.

"As a result, bodies have been recovered from rivers in many places."

Mr Singh confirmed the letter to Reuters but said autopsies on four or five bodies in Ghazipur district did not indicate a virus infection.

"The bodies are decomposed, so I am not sure in this state it can be found corona[virus] positive," he said.

State government spokesman Navneet Sehgal denied media reports that as many as 2,000 corpses of possible virus victims were pulled from rivers in the state and neighbouring Bihar in recent days.

"We keep recovering 10 to 20 bodies every now and then," he said on Saturday.

Some riverside villages did not cremate their dead in respect for Hindu traditions during some periods of religious significance, he said.

Uttar Pradesh has been badly hit by the second surge.

Health experts said many cases went undetected in villages, where most of the state's population live.

In his letter, Mr Singh said a lack of funds for materials such as firewood for cremation, religious beliefs in some communities, and families abandoning victims for fear of the disease were among the likely reasons for the dumping of bodies.

He asked village officials to ensure no corpses were thrown into water and said the state government would pay poor families 5,000 rupees ($68) each to cremate or bury bodies of the dead.

The state has also asked police to patrol rivers to stop the practice.

India has been reporting about 4,000 Covid-19 deaths a day for nearly two weeks, but health experts said the toll was probably much higher because of factors such as poor testing in rural areas.

The rise in deaths led to backlogs at crematoriums in many places and increased the cost of last rites.

The world's largest vaccine-producing nation had fully vaccinated just over 40.4 million people – 2.9 per cent of its 1.35 billion population – as of Sunday, according to data from the government's Co-Win portal.

India will have 516 million doses of coronavirus vaccines by July, Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said on Saturday.