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Anindito Mukherjee

In this image, cremation workers build funeral pyres in improvised crematoria in Uttar Pradesh, India in 2021.

By 2022, more than 6 million people had died from the COVID-19 pandemic around the world. The rapid onset of the pandemic and the scramble for limited supplies have allowed corruption to flourish. Around the globe, there have been reports of the theft of COVID-19 relief funding, price gouging, and profiteering. Unequal distribution of critical medical supplies and vaccines between high-income and low-income countries has also contributed to rising infection rates and eroded public trust in the health sector in many countries.

In India, the country’s already overburdened health care system struggled to provide adequate supplies and treatment to those infected. After managing its first wave of infection, India’s second wave of COVID-19 was more severe, resulting in the world’s highest single-day case count of 400,000 new cases a day in May 2021. One survey suggests the majority of Indians report having paid a bribe or performed favours in exchange for a medical service during the pandemic. Scarce medical supplies including vaccines and medication were fraudulently labelled and sold on the black market while the price of oxygen soared, requiring armed transport.

As tens of thousands of Indians succumbed to the virus, crematoriums were overloaded, unable to manage the high numbers of bodies. In Delhi, crematoriums erected funeral pyres in parking lots and other outdoor spaces. The high death toll drove up the cost of cremation, forcing those without means to bury their dead, against the traditional Hindu custom of prompt cremation of the dead. At least two locations on the sacred Ganges River have more than 500 new shallow graves of people buried in 2021.