Hundreds of corpses, many suspected victims of Covid-19, are being left along riverbanks in northern India. Local officials say that decomposition makes it difficult to determine whether they died of the coronavirus. But villagers say that fear of the disease and lack of funds to cremate are likely reasons for families to leave their dead.
The abandoned corpses discovered near the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states have raised serious questions about the accuracy of official Covid-19 data. With many more people getting sick or dying in villages, the bodies paint a grim picture of the spread of the pandemic in rural areas, where health infrastructure is extremely weak, and containment efforts are hindered by limited testing capacity, stigma, and low vaccination rates.
India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government issued guidelines to local officials this week to manage Covid-19 in rural areas, including increased testing, ensuring isolation and quarantine measures are in place, and establishing dedicated medical facilities for specialized care. However, the delay in providing these guidelines means that many villagers do not yet have adequate health care. Lack of internet access or smart phones in rural India also limits dissemination of health information, vaccine registration, and capacity to seek assistance.
The authorities failed to act on warnings to prepare for a second surge in infections, conveying mixed messages to the public by allowing large religious and political gatherings. Some BJP leaders still recommend using cattle waste, including drinking cow urine, and other rituals, as prevention or cure, instead of promoting safe practices and encouraging people to seek health care.
Leaders continue to issue knee-jerk denials and target critics. The BJP’s crackdown on civil society groups, including attempts to restrict their funding, have hobbled efforts toward educating and counseling village communities about the disease amid misinformation and stigma. Many of these grassroots organizations enjoy trust in rural areas because of their decades-long work supporting communities’ rights to livelihood, food, education, and health care.
The government should reverse its misguided policies, uphold free speech, and collaborate with civil society groups to address the pandemic, including in rural areas. A prompt response is urgently needed to promote affordable, quality health services without discrimination.