TNM investigation: Scores of COVID-19 deaths in Bengaluru missing from state count

TNM visited all 7 crematoriums in Bengaluru meant for COVID-19 bodies and found that the number of cremations is much higher than what is reported by the government.
An ambulance waits in the corner at the Panathur crematorium
An ambulance waits in the corner at the Panathur crematorium
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The total number of COVID-19 deaths reported in Bengaluru city for April 18 to 24, 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 dedicated COVID-19 crematoriums, scores of bodies of COVID patients and patients suspected to have had COVID-19 were cremated on these dates. Many of the patients suspected to have COVID-19 have indeed tested positive after their death. And despite the results coming in positive post their demise, many of these deaths have not reflected in the official bulletins even several days later.

On April 23, at 4.30 pm, the crematorium at MS Palya in Bengaluru still had a long line of ambulances. From April 16, 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 April 18 to April 22, this crematorium has cremated the bodies of 168 people, according to BBMP sources. 

TNM visited all seven crematoriums in Bengaluru meant 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. 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 April 18 to April 22, 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 belong to those who died on the previous day, we are adding 60 deaths that took place on April 17, as per the state bulletin, to the official tally. This means that 527 persons died due to COVID-19 in Bengaluru between April 18 and April 24

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 333 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% of the bodies that were cremated before their COVID-19 results came, did indeed succumb to the infection.

Were the deaths recorded 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 April 17 to April 26 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 April 26.

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. 

BBMP’s response

All BBMP officials we spoke to said that the discrepancy is largely in tabulating the details of people who died in their homes.

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% 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 from Vignesh Vellore

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