Buxar (Bihar): Dozens of unidentified bodies floating in the Ganga near the cremation ghat at Chausa village in Bihar’s Buxar district, which gave rise to the fear that they were bodies of those who had died of COVID-19, were recovered by the district administration on Monday and disposed of in a mass burial following a post-mortem examination and extraction of samples for DNA testing. It is at Chausa that the Ganga enters Bihar; Buxar adjoins Ghazipur district in Uttar Pradesh.
The sub-divisional officer (SDO) of Buxar Sadar, K.K. Upadhyay, told The Wire, “All the bodies were autopsied to identify the cause of death.” However, the post-mortem report has not been able to arrive at a clear conclusion.
The civil surgeon of Buxar district Dr. Jitendra Nath disclosed the reason: “The bodies had decomposed to a great extent because of which it was difficult to ascertain the cause of death.”
Locals who had spotted the bodies floating in the Ganga on Sunday had immediately informed the administration. When more bodies were found on Monday, senior district officials reached the spot and took the decision of fishing out the bodies and burying them.
Upadhyay says it could be that the bodies came floating from neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. Moreover, the bodies’ state of decomposition indicated that they must have been thrown in the river three or four days ago.
However, the locals and those present at the Chausa cremation ghat say that it people from villages nearby who have thrown the bodies in the river as the availability of wood is falling so short of the requirements for funeral pyres that its price has increased greatly. Unable to procure wood, people are performing just the mukhagni (the initial fire ritual) and immersing the unburnt bodies in the river.
Buxar, it is worth noting, is among the districts that lie on the path of the Ganga in Bihar before it enters Bengal. And it is at Buxar’s biggest cremation ghat, namely the Charitravan ghat, that the last rites of persons dying of COVID-19 are performed. Locals say that people from Buxar’s adjoining district of Rohtas also come to Charitravan and Chausa ghat for cremations.
According to media reports, both the priest and the person who prepares the bodies for cremation at the Chausa cremation ghat were quite emphatic that the bodies have not come floating from somewhere else but have been dumped in the river by locals. They said, in pre-COVID times, there would be about four or five cremations a day, but now the number of bodies being brought to the ghat is four or five times that number.
Nandji Singh of Chausa village agreed with them. He said the administration’s view that the bodies had come floating from the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh might hold true in some cases. But it was equally true that locals would often dump bodies in the river near the ghat even in pre-Covid times.
In this instance, even though it was not clear whether the bodies fished out of the river on May 10 were of COVID-19 victims or not, the workers who buried the bodies were provided PPE kits nonetheless, said Upadhyay.
It is an undeniable fact there has been a rise in the number of people dying of COVID-19 in rural areas during the second wave. In many cases, villagers have died of COVID-19-like symptoms. As the testing centres are located quite far from where they live, they consume the medicine available at the local drug store. There is no recovery; on the contrary, five or six crucial days are lost, and often the end result is death. In such cases, no COVID protocol is observed and the bodies are simply thrown in the river.
Take the case of Nachap village in Buxar where six people died in the last one month. While all of them had more or less the same symptoms, only two of them had managed to get themselves tested before they succumbed. Veer Kumar Singh, the mukhiya of Nachap panchayat (the village has a population of about 12000), said, “It was only after several deaths that the district administration took note of the situation and organised a COVID-19 testing camp on May 10.”
Cause for worry, say experts
The district administration may have viewed the recovery of the floating, decomposed bodies as a routine matter, but experts consider it a matter of great worry, for the likelihood of the bodies being of COVID-19 victims cannot be ruled out. The way they see it is that COVID-19 infected bodies being dumped in the river could well increase the risk of infection.
Dr. K.R. Antony, pediatrician and independent monitor for the National Health Mission, pointed to the dangers arising from such a practice: “The droplets released from the body of a COVID-19-infected person would take five to six hours to dry in the sun in the open, in which case the virus would die. But in a moist place, the virus can remain alive for hours.”
He explained further: “It is true that following the death of a person from COVID 19, the virus in his body cannot infect a person through aerosol or droplet as there would be no breathing. However, the virus can remain alive in the body tissue of the dead person for hours.”
According to him, “In a situation where the body of a COVID-19 infected person is dumped in the river and the water is stagnant, people who bathe in that water run the risk of infection. Of course, if the river has a fast-moving current, then the virus and other pollutants will get diluted. The water of the Ganga is stagnant.”