Death within 3 mths of testing +ve to count as Covid fatality, says SC
The bench of justices Ashok Bhushan and MR Shah has repeatedly observed through the proceedings that persons affected by Covid-19 can die due to other complications.
People who died within two to three months after testing Covid-19 positive should be counted as death due to Covid-19, the Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday as it directed the Centre to incorporate this benchmark in its guidelines for death certificates in case of Covid-19 deaths.
The procedure followed by states and union territories in registering deaths came under the judicial scanner in two public interest litigations filed by advocates Reepak Kansal and Gaurav Kumar Bansal.
The bench of justices Ashok Bhushan and MR Shah has repeatedly observed through the proceedings that persons affected by Covid-19 can die due to other complications. Unfortunately, the judges noted in their verdict on Wednesday, the guidelines issued by the Centre and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) haven’t specifically dealt with this aspect.
The top court’s direction on counting deaths within two or three months after testing Covid-19 will lead to an increase in the number of people entitled to ex-gratia payment for the death of family members due to Covid. This direction formed part of the same order where the top court gave six weeks to the Centre to frame guidelines under DMA for providing ex-gratia relief to persons who died due to Covid-19.
According to Union health ministry data, 3,98,454 people have died due to Covid since the first death was reported in Karnataka in March last year. But existing government guidelines only count persons who are positive at the time of death to be a Covid death.
The court directed the appropriate authority to frame a “simplified procedure or guidelines” for issuing an official document or death certificate to the family of those who died due to Covid-19. This document should state the exact cause of death as “Death due to Covid-19”, added the bench.
“If a person has died after he was found Covid positive and he has died within two to three months, either in the hospital or outside the hospital or at home, the death certificate or official document must be issued to the family members of the deceased who died due to Covid-19 stating the cause of death as ‘Died due to Covid-19’,” the bench said.
Presently, death certificates do not mention cause of death. This is due to the bar placed under Section 17 of the Registration of Births and Deaths Act, 1969. This provision states that “no extract relating to any death, issued to any person, shall disclose the particulars regarding the cause of death as entered in the register.”
For families who have already received death certificates and intend to apply for correction with regard to cause of death, the court directed the authority concerned to provide the remedy available to such families under the guidelines.
The court while considering the petitions had recognised the plight of many families who lost their dear ones due to after-effects of Covid-19 but the cause of death was not certified as due to Covid.
The bench said, “It is the duty of every authority to issue accurate/correct death certificates stating the correct and accurate cause of death, so that the family members of the deceased who died due to Covid-19 may not face any difficulty in getting the benefits of the schemes that may be declared by the Government for the death of the deceased, who died due to Covid-19.”
During the arguments in the case, the central government pointed out that it is mandatory for states to register all deaths due to Covid-19. It referred to an October 2020 communication issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Affairs to all states/UTs. It said, “All deaths with a diagnosis of Covid-19, irrespective of comorbidities, are to be classified as deaths due to Covid-19. It is submitted that the only exception could be where there is a clear alternative cause of death, that cannot be attributed to Covid-19 (e.g., accidental trauma, poisoning, acute myocardial infarction, etc), where Covid-19 is an incidental finding.”
Broad guidelines for recording of Covid-19 related deaths in India were prepared by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and issued in May 2020 to all states.
These guidelines said that positive deaths would imply deaths related to Covid-19