At the entrance of Musa Suhag in Ahmedabad, the largest graveyard in the city, discarded safety wear is strewn around: masks, gloves, gowns and face shields. Musa Suhag is among the graveyards in the city, where those who have died of COVID-19 are buried.
The burials are coordinated by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation and the hospitals from where the bodies are brought.
The workers and family members of the dead are given protective equipment to ensure their safety while the last rites are performed.
The discarded apparel is considered a bio-hazard and is meant to be disposed safely, including through incineration or burning.
But locals allege that those who use it simply discard it on the spot.
“We live right there, in the housing society across the road. Almost 16 safety kits are used in each burial. They leave everything behind. The gloves, shoe covers, everything,” says Alkesh Trivedi, a resident, while adding that even the sanitation workers don’t pick it up, as they are worried of contracting coronavirus.
“The dogs then bring these (discarded kits) to our societies,” adds Rajesh Shah, another resident in the area and a Congress worker. Mr Trivedi says that some from the area have now moved away, as they were worried for their health and safety.
Ahmedabad, which has emerged as one of the largest COVID-19 hotspots in the country with over 6,000 cases so far and 421 deaths has been grappling with multiple issues in its fight against the virus; including the improper disposal of used personal protective equipment (PPE) kits after burials and the lack of safety gear for families performing last rites of those who died of the disease, making the city vulnerable to more possible infections.
The caretaker of the cemetery, Syed Liyaqat Ali, says he has informed the authorities, including the trustees of the Sunni Wakf Board who run the cemetery, the municipal corporation and even the police, but to no avail.
So he has now taken it upon himself to incinerate the used PPE kits that are left behind after funerals.
“I have some PVC pipes, which I use to pick it up,” says Mr Ali.
The graves for COVID-19 victims are dug by municipal workers using a bulldozer, unlike regular graves, dug by hand.
A few kilometres away, at the crematorium in Ahmedabad’s Dhudheshwar, similar risks are apparent.
We visited at the time when the last rites of Natwar Bai, 64, who died of coronavirus, were about to be performed. At the same time, at least three cremations of those who died of other causes were taking place.
Mr Bai’s family members claim that they are provided only one safety kit each, to wear when they are performing the last rites.
This means that Gautam Bai, the man’s son, had to look on while his father’s last rites were done by Rakesh, his cousin, in a PPE suit.
“They gave us one PPE kit and told us to wear it while cremating him,” says Rakesh.
Vinod, who handles the incinerations of COVID-19 patients at the crematorium in Dudheswar, says that while the people who have died of causes other than coronavirus are cremated in the open, those who have tested positive for the virus are incinerated in a gas-powered incineration chamber.
“The municipal corporation brings the body (of those who died of coronavirus) in a vehicle. Their family also comes with them. They bring it here and then I attend to it. We have to wear this, the PPE. We have to destroy it too,” he says.
However, family members of both – those who died of COVID-19 and those who died of other causes – intermingled, with little adherence to social distancing.