Relatives of a person who died of Covid-19 perform last rites at Sarai Kale Khan crematorium in New Delhi. (HT file photo)
Relatives of a person who died of Covid-19 perform last rites at Sarai Kale Khan crematorium in New Delhi. (HT file photo)

Add suicide cases to Covid-19 death tally, SC tells Centre

The Supreme Court also wanted some clarifications from the Centre in the procedure for issuing death certificates to families of Covid victims.
By Abraham Thomas, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON SEP 14, 2021 04:54 AM IST

The Supreme Court on Monday told the Union government that persons who died by suicide after suffering Covid-19 should also be considered to have died from the viral disease in the latter’s new guidelines for recognising deaths from the coronavirus disease in death certificates.

It also wanted some clarifications in the procedure for issuing death certificates. Still, the bench said that it was largely satisfied with the guidelines. “Around 80% has been achieved. There are some creases that need to be ironed out,” the bench observed.

Suggesting some other “grey areas” in the guidelines, the top court directed the Centre to consider its suggestions and file a detailed affidavit by September 23; the government is also expected to disclose the quantum of ex-gratia compensation payable to persons who died due to Covid-19.

The guidelines presented to the apex court ahead of the hearing on Friday said any death within 30 days of a positive Covid test would be considered a Covid death, irrespective of whether this happened at home or a hospital. But deaths occurring due to poisoning, suicide, homicide, or accident were not to be treated as Covid deaths among people suffering from the disease, the guidelines added. They also clarified that the deaths of Covid patients who spent more than 30 days in hospital would also be treated as Covid deaths.

The bench of Justices MR Shah and AS Bopanna, said: “If the government is paying compensation to a particular class (of persons who died due to Covid), what about those who died by suicide because they were suffering from the illness. Ultimately, we have to consider suffering of people. Nobody will commit suicide without reason.”

The guidelines were filed pursuant to a Supreme Court judgment of June 30 allowing ex-gratia compensation for those who died from Covid under the National Disaster Management Act 2005. These guidelines were meant to identify those eligible for such compensation.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who appeared for the government said: “The guidelines need to be revisited. The cause of death may be suicide, but the cause of suicide can be Covid. Suppose a person is Covid positive and immediately dies by suicide, it can be considered.” Mehta further pointed out that the Centre had also complied with the scheme for ex-gratia compensation under the 2005 Act. He agreed to file a comprehensive compliance affidavit by the next date of hearing on September 23.

The bench said, “Your guidelines suggest that irrespective of the fact that Covid is an accompanying condition, death due to suicide will not be treated as a Covid death.” Advocate Gaurav Kumar Bansal, one of the petitioners at whose instance the June 30 order was passed, told the Court that as according to a recent research study by NIMHANS, Bengaluru, Covid - related suicides were recorded to be well above the average national suicide rate. He said the Centre’s exclusion of suicide deaths linked to Covid was “irrational, arbitrary and illogical”.

The bench told the petitioner, “Let the Centre apply their mind, or else we are here. It is a larger issue that affects suffering of people.”

The Court also examined the other aspects of the guidelines which talked about the procedure for issuance of fresh death documents by a district-level committee comprising Additional District Collector, Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH), Additional CMOH/ Principal or HOD Medicine of a Medical College (if one exists in the district) and a subject expert. Requests for issuance of death certificate were to be disposed within 30 days, the guidelines added.

The bench asked Mehta: “What about death certificates already issued by the authorities and where family members have dispute about the cause of death being Covid? We find that the district-level Committee is concerning future applications only. Also, what about documents from hospital certifying cause of death as Covid? Suppose any dispute arises, how will the family members prove the death was due to Covid?”

The court put other pertinent questions to the Centre. “When will you constitute the Committee. There has to be a timeframe within which the states have to set it up.”

In its June 30 order, the bench gave six weeks to the government to comply with its directions on ex-gratia compensation, death certificate guidelines and a national health insurance scheme for disaster-related deaths as envisaged by the Fifteenth Finance Commission. On August 16, the Centre was granted an extension of four weeks to frame the ex-gratia scheme under Section 12 (iii) of the 2005 Act as Covid was notified as a disaster under the same Act in March 2020.

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