Bodies float down Ganges as virus deaths rise

Scores of bodies are washing up on the banks of the Ganges as Indians fail to keep pace with the deaths and cremations of around 4,000 people a day from Covid-19.

India accounts for one in three of the reported deaths from the coronavirus around the world, according to a Reuters tally, and its health system is overwhelmed, despite donations of oxygen cylinders and other medical equipment from around the world.

Rural parts of India not only have more rudimentary healthcare, but are now also running short of wood for traditional Hindu cremations.

Authorities said on Tuesday that they are investigating the discovery of scores of bodies found floating down the Ganges in two states - Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Officials said the bodies appeared to be bloated and partially burnt.

"As of now it is very difficult for us to say where these dead bodies have come from," said Mr M.P. Singh, the top government official in Ghazipur district in Uttar Pradesh.

Mr Akhand Pratap, a local resident, said that "people are immersing bodies in the holy Ganges river instead of cremation because of a shortage of cremation wood".

Local resident Chandra Mohan told the BBC: "Private hospitals are looting people.

"Common people are not left with money to pay a priest and spend more on cremation at the riverbank.

"They are asking Rs2,000 [£20; $27]($36) just to get the corpse out of the ambulance. The river has become their last recourse so people are immersing corpses in the river.[/£20; $27]"

Even in the national capital New Delhi, many Covid-19 victims are abandoned by their relatives after cremation, leaving volunteers to wash the ashes, pray over them and then scatter them into the river in the holy city of Haridwar, 180km away.

"Our organisation collects these remains from all the crematoriums and performs the last rituals in Haridwar so that they can achieve salvation," said Mr Ashish Kashyap, a volunteer from the charity Shri Deodhan Sewa Samiti.

India's seven-day average of daily infections hit 348,421 on Wednesday, with 4,205 deaths, according to the health ministry. The total number of cases are 23.3 million, the second-highest after the United States.

Official Covid-19 deaths, which experts say are almost certainly under-reported, stand at 254,197.

The World Health Organisation said on Wednesday that it regarded the coronavirus variant first identified in India last year as a variant of global concern, with some preliminary studies showing that it spreads more easily.

The variant, which is behind the acceleration of India's explosive second wave, has been found in dozens of countries all over the world.

The United Nations health agency said the B.1.617, first found in India in October, has been detected in more than 4,500 samples uploaded to an open-access database "from 44 countries in all six WHO regions".

"And WHO has received reports of detections from five additional countries," it said in its weekly epidemiological update on the pandemic.

Outside India, the United Kingdom has reported the most Covid-19 cases caused by the variant.

Earlier this week, the WHO declared B.1.617 - which counts three so-called sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics - as a "variant of concern".

It was therefore added to the list containing three other Covid-19 variants - those first detected in Britain, Brazil and South Africa.

The variants are seen as more dangerous than the original version of the virus because they are either more transmissible, deadly or able to get past some vaccine protections.

The WHO explained on Wednesday that B.1.617 was added to the list because the variant appears to be transmitting more easily than the original virus, pointing to the "rapid increases in prevalence in multiple countries".

It also pointed to "preliminary evidence" that the variant was more resistant to treatment with the monoclonal antibody Bamlanivimab and also highlighted early lab studies indicating "limited reduction in neutralisation by antibodies".

It stressed, though, that "real-world impacts" on the effectiveness of vaccines against the variant for instance "may be limited".

The WHO said the spread of B.1.617, alongside other more transmittable variants, appeared to be one of several factors fuelling India's dramatic surge in new cases and deaths.

Reuters, AFP

"Common people are not left with money to pay a priest and spend more on cremation at the riverbank... The river has become their last recourse so people are immersing corpses in the river."

- Local resident Chandra Mohan

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