If any benchmark was needed for the growing menace of COVID-19 in Gujarat, one only has to open the obituary page of local newspapers.
With each passing day, the obituary columns are becoming longer and longer to the point that the daily Saurashtra Bhaskar's Bhavnagar edition on Thursday set aside eight of its 16 pages for obituary notices.
The burgeoning death notices come amid apprehensions that the number of cases and casualties are being underreported for a variety of reasons.
Saurashtra Bhaskar, a popular Gujarati newspaper, carried 238 obituaries on Thursday, a quantum jump from just 28 two months back on March 6.
Sandesh, another leading Gujarati newspaper, says 12 coronavirus patients died on Wednesday in the Kheda district of Gujarat, while the state government data says only two COVID-19 patients died in Kheda on Wednesday.
Similarly, the Gujarat Samachar newspaper says 25 coronavirus patients died on Wednesday in Gandhinagar, a sharp contrast to the Gujarat government's claim that no one died due to the virus in Gandhinagar on Wednesday.
The Congress claims that the Bharatiya Janata Party government in Gujarat is underreporting coronavirus cases to mask the real death count due to the pandemic.
"The Vijay Rupani-led government in the state is suppressing coronavirus death figures to hide the reality from the people," state Congress spokesperson Manish Doshi said.
Countering the allegations, the state government maintains that if a coronavirus patient with co-morbidities dies, his death may not be attributed to the viral infection and every death is categorised as per the Indian Council of Medical Research guidelines.
As per the state government's data released on Wednesday, Gujarat recorded 133 deaths due to COVID-19 during the preceding 24 hours.
This data is in stark contrast with the 141 obituaries published in two major Gujarati language newspapers on Thursday, 85 in Gujarat Samachar and 56 in Sandesh.
"The BJP government is hiding the actual death figures to cover up their failures in handling the pandemic. In many villages, the daily death toll is in double figures while the government data shows single figures for the entire district," the state Congress spokesperson said.
Chief Minister Vijay Rupani recently denied reports that the state government was hiding coronavirus fatalities.
"As per ICMR guidelines, if a comorbid patient dies then a committee of experts decides the primary and secondary causes of the death. If the committee identifies the main cause of the death as a heart attack then even though the patient was infected, such death is not counted as caused by coronavirus. This system is followed in the entire country," the chief minister had said. The Gujarat high court on Wednesday said the steps taken by the state government to contain the spread of COVID-19 were not enough and further restrictions need to be imposed while keeping in mind people's welfare.
The observation came after the state government informed the court about measures undertaken to stem the spread of the deadly virus.
"Steps have indeed been taken by the state government... but the same is not enough in the present situation and further steps to break the chain is also required to make the public at large aware about the pandemic and its grave effect on the society by imposing further restrictions as may be thought fit in the present situation," the court said.
Gujarat government on Wednesday reported 12,955 new coronavirus positive cases in the state even as 12,995 people recovered from the infection and 133 COVID-19 patients died.
With the addition of the new cases and the fatalities, the overall COVID-19 tally in Gujarat rose to 6,33,427 and the toll to 7,912, the health department said.