New Delhi: The controversy surrounding the discrepancy in the COVID-19 death count available with the civic bodies and the health department of the Delhi government refuses to die down.
The death toll figure reported by the municipal corporations is nearly twice the ‘official’ figure – which climbed to 288 on May 26. To make matters worse, a recent order by the Delhi high court dismissing a plea to scrap the “Death Audit Committee” that vets the figures provided by Delhi hospitals, has not helped resolve the imbroglio surrounding the disparity in the figures.
Data discrepancy first observed in April
The Wire had previously reported that there was a major disparity in the death toll figures being presented by different arms of the government in Delhi. The difference was first pointed out in April. By the second week of May, when the Delhi government held that the official death toll was 68, the reported number of cremations at Nigambodh Ghat and Punjabi Bagh crematoria and burials at the ITO cemetery in accordance with “COVID protocol” had reached a total of 314.
While these figures were borne out of an investigation undertaken by the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, some television channels also subsequently reported on the large mismatch between the numbers.
Chief secretary acknowledges under-reporting of deaths
After allegations of suppression of data on the death toll were first levelled, the Delhi chief secretary acknowledged the underreporting of deaths from COVID-19.
In an order to all the health and administration officials and in-charge of hospitals, chief secretary Vijay Dev stated that “the death summaries of the deceased patients are not being provided to the Death Audit Committee, resulting in incorrect and delayed reports being submitted.” He also issued standard operating procedures to all government and private hospitals regarding the sharing of data on deaths from COVID-19 with the Death Audit Committee.
Lawyers’ union takes the matter to the high court
Since there was no serious attempt by the Delhi government to clarify the difference in the figures being provided by the crematoria and the burial ground, a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) was filed by the All India Lawyers’ Union through its secretary, advocate Sunil Kumar.
The petition alleged that the Delhi government was not reporting accurate data and sought that directions be issued to it to publish data related to COVID-19 positive cases and the death toll daily. It also urged the scrapping of the ‘Death Audit Committee’ constituted by the Delhi government.
The high court, in its order on May 22, dismissed the demand to scrap the DAC saying “there seems to be no arbitrariness or discrimination being done nor is there any material to show false fabrication of data in question being published by the respondents (Delhi Government).”
HC refuses to scrap DAC, directs government to reveal data on daily basis
Stating that it was “not sitting in appeal against the reports published by the Death Audit Committee from time to time,” the division bench of Chief Justice D.N. Patel and Justice Prateek Jalan said “there are no basis for the allegations to the effect that the Committee is not working properly”.
The bench said it expected that the DAC and the Delhi government would “publish the data only after proper analysis of the data supplied by the Central Government-run hospitals, State Government-run hospitals and private hospitals in Delhi”. It also directed that the data be maintained properly by this committee of experts and the Delhi government.
HC order put an end to ugly politics: Sisodia
Following the judgment, Delhi deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia said he was “glad that honorable Delhi HC has put an end to ugly politics being played by some opposition leaders on such a sensitive issue.” He insisted that the government was providing accurate numbers on a daily basis.
However, after the court ruling, leaders of the BJP-ruled Municipal Corporations of North and South Delhi reiterated that 591 cremations or burials had taken place at the six COVID-designated cremation and burial grounds until May 21.
Figures belie official story
Standing committee chairman of North MCD Jai Prakash claimed that 282 people had been cremated or buried in accordance with the COVID-19 protocol in his area, while the leader of house in South MCD Kamaljeet Sehrawat said 309 such cremations or burials had taken place in his area. Incidentally, till May 21, the official toll according to the health department of the Delhi government was 194.
Terming the difference a “massive discrepancy”, Jai Prakash went on record to say, “If you combine the total death figures from NDMC and SDMC, it comes out to be nearly 600 till May 21, which is almost three times what the Delhi government reported. The AAP government is under-reporting death cases to save its face.”