Parts of India have recorded dramatic falls in the number of deaths at a time when funeral parlours were bracing for a surge amid the coronavirus crisis.
Some experts said the trend suggested that deaths from COVID-19, which are recorded separately and generally announced before overall mortality data, were not being under-reported as has happened in other countries.
But emergency room doctors, officials, and crematoriums noted that strict lockdowns had cut the number of road traffic accidents and deaths on India’s packed railways, and may also be deterring relatives from reporting a family death.
All over the world, mortality rates are being scrutinised to determine the true impact of the coronavirus, which emerged in China late last year and is known to have infected more than 2.7 million people globally, with nearly 190,000 deaths.
While deaths in some countries have risen sharply in recent weeks, in India, where overall data is unavailable, the opposite seems to be happening in some places, leaving hospitals, funeral services and cremation sites wondering what is going on.
“It’s very surprising for us,” said Shruthi Reddy, chief executive officer of Anthyesti Funeral Services, which operates in Kolkata and Bengaluru.
The company handled about five jobs a day in January but has only had about three a day this month.
“We’ve declared employee pay cuts if revenue falls below a threshold,” Reddy said.
Other numbers tell a similar story.
Central Mumbai, home to some 12 million people, saw the number of deaths fall by about 21% in March compared with the same month of 2019, according to municipal data.
Overall deaths plummeted 67% in Ahmedabad, the biggest city in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat, over the same period.
Data from at least two other cities, along with accounts from state health officials, show a similar pattern. Half a dozen funeral businesses and crematoriums also reported slumps in business, especially in April.
“If we’re not seeing an increase in deaths, the suspicion that there may be more COVID-19 fatalities out there is not true,” said Giridhar Babu, professor of epidemiology at the Public Health Foundation of India.