On Thursday, when 59-year-old Jitender Singh Shunty, a former legislator who has been helping with Covid-19 cremations at the Seemapuri crematorium, held the lifeless body of nine-month-old Krishu, his hands trembled. Over the past two months, since the second wave of the pandemic hit the national capital, he has helped cremate over 2,000 infected dead, but Krishu's body, barely weighing eight kilos, was the heaviest he has had to carry.
Krishu was the second infant to be buried at the Seemapuri crematorium in the span of two days. On Wednesday, five-month-old Pari, who was also Covid-19 positive, was buried at the same crematorium.
"In the past 15 days, we have received the bodies of three infants and one of an unborn child. We generally do not cremate the bodies of children -- we either bury them or let the river carry them away. But amid this severe wave of the pandemic, there is fear that the infection would spread if infant bodies are set afloat in the river," Shunty said.
Based on observations from hospital admissions, medical experts the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic is taking a toll on children, with several hospitals seeing more children -- some as young as a month old -- being admitted with the viral infection. While there were few children being admitted to the hospital in the first wave, the admissions this time around are more, the experts said.
In fact, nearly 50% of children surveyed during the fifth round of the serological survey in Delhi, which was conducted in January 2021, were found to have antibodies against Covid-19, suggesting that children are as exposed to the infection as adults.
Shashank Shekhar, Krishu's father, said his only child tested positive for Covid on Monday and was admitted to east Delhi's Guru Teg Bahadur (GTB) Hospital on Tuesday, after his blood oxygen levels dipped to 31 (the optimum is 90% or above). He died on Thursday. Krishu's mother had tested positive 18 days ago and the child may have caught the infection from her, he said.
A day before that, five-month-old Pari had succumbed to pneumonia and cardiac arrest, triggered by Covid, at the GTB hospital. Shaheed Bhagat Singh Sewa Dal volunteers, who work at the Seemapuri cremation facility, said the bodies of Krishu and Pari are buried side by side in a vacant space near the cremation platforms.
Vacant space, to bury the very young, is what the city lacks at present. With the river mostly carrying away the bodies of children, the city has never had to make provisions for infant burials and that, too, multiple burials at a time or in the space of a few days, say managers of cremation facilities.
The larger crematoriums such as the Nigambodh Ghat and the Ghazipur facility have no provision to take bodies of infants.
"We do not take the bodies of infants and children, even of those infected by Covid. We do not have the provision or the space to accommodate them. Also, there is no separate protocol for the last rites of children affected by coronavirus," said Suman Gupta, general secretary of the Nigambodh Ghat Sanchalan Samiti, the body that manages the Nigambodh Ghat crematorium.
The three municipalities, which are responsible for the cremation facilities in Delhi, are now looking at options to dedicate space for infant burials.
"It has come to our notice that there is no space to bury the young, who succumb to Covid-19. We have scheduled a meeting with officials of the north corporation (North Delhi Municipal Corporation) on Monday to discuss land that can be dedicated for such burials," said Jai Prakash, north Delhi mayor.