On Sunday, July 5, Kusum Lata, 52, a COVID-19 patient at Delhi’s government-operated All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), which is India’s highest-ranked medical institute, passed away. A Hindu, her body was then apparently handed over to her family, who cremated her in Delhi’s Punjabi Bagh locality.
Two days later, a COVID-19 patient only identified as Anjum B., 35, had been brought to Delhi from the neighbouring state of Uttar Pradesh, also breathed her last at the same hospital.
The family of Anjum, who was Muslim, travelled to Delhi to perform her last rites and hold a burial ceremony. However, just before her four brothers and her two young children could bury her body, the family realised something: that the corpse they had been given was not Anjum.
Anjum’s family discovered the mix-up by sheer accident: one of her brothers insisted on seeing his sister’s face before she was buried according to Islamic traditions.
In keeping with the protocol of handing over COVID-19 corpses, the hospital had sealed the body in a protective plastic case. Anjum’s brother then slipped the burial grounds staff INR 500 ($6) to open the bag, only to find an elderly woman inside instead of his sister.
The grieving family frantically tried to contact AIIMS, which reportedly assured them that they would receive the right body within a few hours.
However, about 12 hours later, the family was informed that Anjum’s body had already been cremated by Lata’s family according to Hindu customs. They had not opened the protective plastic cover before the ceremony.
According to religious tradition, Hindu families cremate their dead within 24 hours of their passing. They believe the soul is not confined to the body, and is reincarnated based on one’s karma. In Islamic funeral customs, the body is buried after it is shrouded in a white sheet. Family members typically offer a prayer while burying the body, and decorative graves are frowned upon. The hospital’s lapse was especially painful for for both families who did not get the chance to bury their loved one in keeping with religious tradition.
AIIMS has since fired a contractual mortuary worker and suspended a medical laboratory technician over the switch. A committee of AIIMS doctors has been set up to investigate this incident. VICE News reached out to the head of the committee Dr T S Roy, but he refused to comment on the situation.
The grieving families also threatened legal action. "We have received a complaint regarding the swapping of bodies by AIIMS from the relatives of one of the dead women, and are looking into the matter," Anil Mittal, the Additional Public Relations Officer of Delhi Police told VICE News.
In May, 2020, another Indian hospital in Assam made headlines for a similarly grave mistake. The hospital mixed up two patients with similar names, and ended up mistakenly releasing a COVID-19 positive patient instead of the one who actually tested negative.
With more than 767,260 confirmed cases, and 21,129 deaths caused by the novel coronavirus, India, the third worst-hit country in the world, has been struggling to not only treat the rising number of patients, but also dispose of dead bodies.
Overwhelmed with hundreds of deaths every day, along with the stigma attached to COVID-19 patients, many Indian states are running out of space in morgues and burial grounds.
Last month, health workers in the South Indian union territory of Puducherry carelessly and hurriedly threw the corpse of a COVID-19 patient into a pit to dispose of the body, in a case that caused uproar.
Last week, officials in the south Indian state of Karnataka also came under fire after they were caught throwing eight dead bodies of COVID-19 patients in garbage bags in a pit. Meanwhile, just a few days ago in Andhra Pradesh, also in South India, government staffers tried to dump a dead elderly COVID-19 patient in an excavator.
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