The elderly man died within a few hours of undergoing a Covid test. The report, which arrived late on Tuesday, confirmed the family’s worst fears: he was indeed Covid-positive. It was only on Wednesday, a full 48 hours after the death, that government health workers collected the body for cremation.
The incident highlights the sorry state of affairs across multiple agencies — all of whom claim to have been following Covid protocol — while dealing with the pandemic, and the desperation of a grieving family that led them to buy a freezer to preserve the body.
According to the family, which runs a chemicals business, the elderly man, who used to live on the top floor of an apartment on Amherst Street with his wife, had been suffering from fever and cough for the past few days. On Monday, his sons took him to a nearby private hospital that suggested a Covid test. The test was conducted at a local diagnostic centre, but even as he returned home, his condition worsened and he died around 3pm at home. Following his death, the family called a physician, who came wearing a PPE but refused to issue a death certificate as the test report was due.
“The doctor said my uncle possibly died of a cardiac arrest but couldn’t write that in the death certificate unless the Covid test report comes,” said the victim’s nephew. “He asked us to preserve the body until we got the report.”
The man’s sons hired a hearse in the evening and took him to multiple city morgues, but no one was ready to keep the body, fearing contamination. The family said they even contacted the cops for help, but none arrived. “Unable to preserve the body anywhere, his sons brought him back home. By that time, the body had already started to decompose and we had to do something. So, next morning, we bought an ice-cream freezer and kept the body inside it to prevent it from rotting. We had no other option,” said the nephew.
In the meanwhile, the family contacted everyone from cops to local councillors, who directed them to get in touch with the state health department. They contacted them, too, but officials said they could do nothing till the reports were available.
Late on Tuesday, around 10pm, the family collected the report from the diagnostic centre’s Rajarhat laboratory, which said the man had tested positive. “After the report came, we again informed the local police station and health department officials, who said help would be available soon. But they only came on Wednesday afternoon, that too after multiple calls,” a relative said.
The family’s neighbours said they were aware that the body was kept in the flat for two days, and they tried to contact all agencies, but without any help. “We called the local police station, local councillor and the local MLA multiple times, but none dared to visit the apartment. What if we all contract the disease now? The building was sanitised only on Wednesday evening, more than 50 hours after the man died,” said Raj Gupta, a first-floor resident of the building.
The Amherst Street police denied allegations of non-cooperation. “There are certain claims being made. In fact, it was an ACP, who stays in the flat, who first informed us of the death. However, as the agency implementing social distancing, we had contacted the private agency, which tested the patient. They told us that the results were not ready on Monday itself. According to protocol, once we get the death certificate saying that death was due to Covid, we inform Swasthya Bhawan. That is exactly what we did, when we got the official death certificate at 11pm on Tuesday,” said an officer of Kolkata Police’s north division.
A senior official of the state health department admitted to “miscommunication” that led to the family buying a freezer to preserve the body, but added that the family should have insisted on admitting the patient at a hospital, considering his age. Another doctor said that even after the death, had the body been taken to a government hospital, the harassment could have been minimised, as the body would have been kept at the hospital morgue until the Covid report arrived.
“There must have been some miscommunication in this case. We are looking into it,” said a health department official.
— with inputs from Sumati Yengkhom and Saikat Ray