India's biggest graveyard full after Covid surge rips through country

Video report by ITV News Senior International Correspondent John Irvine

The Islamic graveyard of Jadid Qabristan is India's largest and oldest - and because of Covid-19, it’s now full.

For the first time in its 97-year-history the burial site in Delhi is at capacity, with grave diggers already having to plan where to next send the bodies of coronavirus victims.

ITV News filmed the final few burials at Jadid Qabristan with permission of the families mourning their loved ones.

Mushir Khan mourns his mother, Aisha Begum, the family only learnt of her death when they went to visit her in hospital

This video contains distressing images

"When I see relatives starting to cry I can’t help but cry too," said Sher Singh, one of the grave diggers at Jadid Qabristan.

He has spent weeks toiling at the burial ground, amid India's surging second wave of infections.

"I wish there was no need for a job like mine," he said.

Mohammed Shamim is caretaker of the graveyard, his father and his grandfather were in charge before him. All three generations say they could never have imagined it this full.

Jadid Qabristan is full for the first time in its near 100-year history

The burials happen quickly and with an urgent efficiency - driven on by the fear of infection and the pressure of the many funerals happening each day.

India's official count of coronavirus cases surpassed 20 million on Tuesday, while its official death toll passed 220,000.

Still, the warnings that India is yet to see the worst of the crisis continue.

What's plunged India into crisis - listen to our podcast Coronavirus: What you need to know

Dr Swapneil Parikh is a doctor in Mumbai and has written a book on the pandemic.

He told ITV News the official number of cases will be much lower than the actual number of infections.

"The cases are a percentage of the infections.

"The number of infections is much larger, some estimates in India is that the actual number of infections are 10 to 20 times higher than the number of cases."

'The numbers are huge' and bigger than official counts warns Dr Parikh

The death toll, Dr Parikh says, could be "three to four times higher" than what has been officially recorded.

A time-lag between a patient getting infected and eventually becoming ill means the crisis will worsen still, Dr Parikh warned.

"This time-lag means that the strain on our health systems right now are because of infections from a few weeks' ago - when the numbers were much lower.

"So today when the number of infections is at its highest ever - we're going to deal with the fallout of that over the next few weeks.

"So even if there were no further infections tomorrow - it's going to get worse before it gets better - and we know there are going to be more infections tomorrow."

That prediction is yet more dire news for India's healthcare workers, each day facing the impossible choice of who to keep alive amid a shortage of oxygen.

A video has emerged from one hospital where a doctor is heard saying he cannot make that choice.

"This job of choosing whom to save, whom to let die - I cannot do that job."

Doctors face a choice of who to save and who to let die

Critics of the way India's government has handled the crisis are angry medics are in such a position.

The country had a hold on the virus after the first wave but opened up quickly, with few measures in place to limit the spread - including a lack of social distancing at crowded events.

"There were multiple speeches given by multiple people very high up in government that we had beaten corona, that we were at the end game of the pandemic," says Dr Parikh.

"When people at the highest echelons of power start to think that we've succeeded, that we're somehow different, that hubris permeates across the entire system, so of course there was a policy failure."

How can India emerge from this crisis? 'Start vaccinating like our lives depend on it'

The answer now, experts say, is to vaccinate.

"We need to start vaccinating like our lives depend on it," says Dr Parikh.

On Saturday, everyone in India aged 18 and above became eligible for the vaccine after the government rapidly expanded who could get the jab due to the spiralling cases.

That policy looks set to be hampered, however, by supply.

India is facing chronic vaccine shortages despite an Indian company, the Serum Institute, being the world’s largest manufacturer. 

Adar Poonawalla, chief executive of Serum Institute in India, told ITV News in November last year his company was committed to producing a billion doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

"It's going to be the Indians who get it first, at least from what I'm making, and you're going to have AstraZeneca producing it for the UK," he said.