At least 90 more bodies of suspected Covid-19 victims have washed up in rivers in India, as the virus continues to spread into poor rural areas and the country recorded its highest daily death toll so far.
More than 70 corpses were discovered floating in the Ganges River in the Buxar district of the state of Bihar and dozens more bodies were found upstream in the Ghazipur and Ballia districts in the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh.
Several more were found floating in the Runj River in Panna, Madhya Pradesh, which serves as a source of water for villagers and their cattle.
It came as India recorded another surge in deaths nationwide, with 4,205 recorded on Tuesday, the highest of the pandemic so far. India also reported another 348,421 infections, pushing the country’s total to 20.3m cases, a figure experts widely believe is an undercount.
Earlier this week, 30 bodies had been recovered from the Ganges in the same area. Thought to be over five days old, they were heavily decomposed and so officials said it was difficult to confirm if they had died of Covid-19 or other causes.
Many believe the bodies had been dumped due to the rising cost of cremating bodies, with crematoriums overrun and firewood for pyres now expensive and in short supply. Images of ambulance drivers throwing bodies over a bridge on the border of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar into the river emerged on social media.
The discovery of the suspected coronavirus fatalities was a cause of concern for local villagers who use the river as a source of water for drinking and washing. The Ganges is also the most sacred river to Hindus and is worshipped as the goddess Ganga.
The former chief of the village of Mubarakpur in the district said the dumping of bodies had been happening “for the last week”.
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have blamed each other for the dumping of the corpses. “The bodies have floated into Bihar from Uttar Pradesh,” said the Bihar minister Sanjay Kumar Jha, adding that a net had been placed in the Ganges along the state border to prevent any more bodies floating downstream. Uttar Pradesh authorities have denied all responsibility.
Officials said the washed-up remains would be buried in a mass grave, though DNA samples would be taken from them first.
The central government minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat called the incident “unexpected”. “The Modi government is committed to the cleanliness of ‘mother Ganga’,” he said.
In a press statement, the Buxar administration said it had told local officials “to be alert about such incidents in future and have also asked them to make locals aware about not throwing bodies into the river”.
While Covid cases in India’s largest and initially worst-hit cities of Delhi and Mumbai appear to be slowing, almost 90% of India still has a high coronavirus positivity rate, with the impact shifting to rural areas. In Bihar, 76% of cases are in rural and small town areas, while in Uttar Pradesh the figure is 65%.
The shift is a concern for officials as India’s rural areas have poor health infrastructure, a lack of doctors, ventilators, oxygen facilities and Covid testing capacity.
The Uttar Pradesh government said it had provided oxygen concentrators, which draw oxygen from the air, and ventilators to all districts and that testing facilities were being set up in 97,000 villages.
This week the World Health Organization classified a Covid variant that has emerged in India, B.1.617, as a “variant of concern” after early evidence showed it was more transmissible. This makes it the fourth Covid variant, after those first discovered in Brazil, South Africa and the UK, to be given this designation.
On Tuesday, it was confirmed that India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, would no longer attend the G7 summit in the UK in June due to the ongoing Covid situation in India.