New Delhi ambulance group grapples with surging COVID-19 quarantine deaths

Jitender Singh Shunty (in yellow turban) from the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal speaks with the relatives of a 57-year-old coronavirus disease (COVID-19) victim before taking the body for the cremation in New Delhi, India, November 26, 2020. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Wearing a yellow turban and white overalls, Jitender Singh Shunty and three of his coworkers carefully pulled the body of a 57-year-old COVID-19 victim out of his bedroom in a house in New Delhi's west and onto an ambulance waiting downstairs.

A second ambulance from Shunty's non-profit medical service carrying three other COVID-19 patients joined them on the Indian capital's clogged roads for a trip to a crematorium in the city's east.

Before the novel coronavirus engulfed India, the Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal helped cremate the unclaimed bodies of homeless people and others. This month, Shunty's team has been flooded with calls from families of those dying at home after quarantining for COVID-19.

The disease has killed more than 2,000 people this month in the city slammed by its third, and most severe, surge of infections.

Shunty's group has ferried up to 25 such bodies a day this month, compared to about three earlier. While infections and fatalities have slowed in India since a mid-September peak, Delhi is going in the opposite direction.

"Corona has gone out of control in Delhi," said Shunty, who founded the non-governmental organisation more than 25 years ago. It runs 16 ambulances, almost all of them working overtime these days.

"Too many deaths are happening, especially among the old and people with other complications."

India has reported 9.3 million infections so far, the world's second-highest after the United States, with more than 135,000 fatalities.

From the pandemic's start, Delhi has encouraged home isolation for non-severe patients to reduce the burden on local hospitals that also serve two surrounding states.

The Delhi government does not regularly release data on home isolation deaths and did not respond to a request for comment.

Currently more than 23,000 people are recovering at home in Delhi, which has been recording a total of around 100 deaths a day this month and more than 5,000 infections.

Shunty feels many home deaths are going unrecorded, because his team alone has been picking up around a dozen bodies a day from just one area of Delhi.

After many Delhi hospitals ran out of critical-care beds this month, the federal government flew in army doctors and nurses, and squeezed more beds into hospitals.

Delhi government officials say many isolation and critical-care beds are now available.

That could encourage more people to demand hospitalisation, unlike Rajen Mehta's father, whose last rituals were done by Shunty's team on Thursday.

"He was asked to home quarantine. We kept him separately," said Mehta. "Then he suddenly had a seizure, and within five minutes he died."

(Writing by Krishna N. Das; editing by Christian Schmollinger)

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