Family members of Vijaya Raju, who died due to coronavirus disease, mourn before being cremated in a crematorium in the village of Giddenahalli on the outskirts of Bangalore, India on May 13, 2021. REUTERS / Samuel Rajkumar
Ashok Khondare, a 39-year-old vegetable seller in the western Indian city of Pune, had already borrowed money to treat his sister when she died in a private hospital two weeks after exposure to COVID-19.
While trying to overcome the tragedy, he also had to face financial problems, which intensified after the death of his sister.
The only hearse available charged INR 5,000 ($ 68) for the 6-kilometer (four miles) ride to the nearest crematorium – five times the normal rate. When Honda got there, there was a long line of dead bodies, and the wait lasted more than a day. He agreed to pay another 7,000 rupees to skip the line.
“For two weeks I was in a terrible situation,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep or eat normally. I wanted to put an end to this as early as possible and did not mind paying an irrational amount. “
The second wave of coronavirus in India caused not only a shortage of oxygen, medicine and hospital beds, but also firewood for funeral pyres, hearses and crematorium slots, forcing people like Honda to pay exorbitant sums to perform the last rites of loved ones.
India reports the largest number of new daily cases in the world and more than 4,000 deaths per day – numbers that experts say are almost certainly an underestimate.
The Indian majority in India cremates their dead, and the huge number of deaths leads to delays at cremation sites and a shortage of manpower and raw materials.
“There is a huge demand for firewood used for funeral pyres in crematoria, but supplies are scarce,” said Rohit Pardeshi, a firewood trader from Satara, a city in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
Due to a local ban designed to curb the pandemic, there are not enough people to cut trees, and those workers that are available are asking for higher wages.
“This led to a shortage of firewood and raised prices,” Pardeshi said.
Firewood retail prices rose at least 30 percent and more than doubled in some areas, said a second firewood seller in the same city.
In the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, 24-year-old Mukul Chaudhary faced similar problems after his mother died in the state capital, Lucknow.
The ambulance driver who brought his mother to the hospital for Rs 5,000 took even more to take her body to the crematorium.
“We had to beg him not to overcharge us anymore,” Chaudhary said.
Firewood for cremation cost twice as much, and the priest performing the last rites charged 5,000 rupees from the family – two to five times the usual amount.
Rohit Jangam, a Hindu priest from Satara, said that many priests refused to enter crematoria out of fear, and those who were willing charged higher prices.
“It is too risky to perform the last rites of the dead because of the coronavirus,” he said. “If someone asks, I give, but I take more because I take risks.”
He declined to say how much more he charges.
For COVID patients who manage to survive, black marketing of medical products is flourishing, and desperate relatives are paying huge sums in a country that is still a low-income country.
In the capital New Delhi, oxygen tanks changed hands for Rs 70,000, according to interviews with relatives, twenty times the regular price and many times the monthly salary of the average Indian.
Police have made more than 100 arrests in overpricing cases, including for drugs, ambulances and hospital beds.
Arvina Sharma, a 28-year-old lawyer from Noida, New Delhi’s satellite city, has helped over a dozen COVID friends and family get oxygen and medical supplies over the past month. Almost all of them have significantly overpaid.
“They’re like vultures,” she said of the drug dealers on the black market.
“You are standing in front of me with something that can save me, and you are looking at my pocket.”
(1 US dollar = 73.3130 Indian rupees)
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