COVID-19 has emerged as a global crisis with unprecedented socio-economic challenges, jeopardizing our lives and livelihoods for years to come. The unavailability of vaccines for COVID-19 has rendered rapid testing of the population instrumental in order to contain the exponential rise in cases of infection. Shortage of RT-PCR test kits and delays in obtaining test results calls for alternative methods of rapid and reliable diagnosis. In this article, we propose a novel deep learning-based solution using chest X-rays which can help in rapid triaging of COVID-19 patients. The proposed solution uses image enhancement, image segmentation, and employs a modified stacked ensemble model consisting of four CNN base-learners along with Naive Bayes as meta-learner to classify chest X-rays into three classes viz. COVID-19, pneumonia, and normal. An effective pruning strategy as introduced in the proposed framework results in increased model performance, generalizability, and decreased model complexity. We incorporate explainability in our article by using Grad-CAM visualization in order to establish trust in the medical AI system. Furthermore, we evaluate multiple state-of-the-art GAN architectures and their ability to generate realistic synthetic samples of COVID-19 chest X-rays to deal with limited numbers of training samples. The proposed solution significantly outperforms existing methods, with 98.67\% accuracy, 0.98 Kappa score, and F-1 scores of 100, 98, and 98 for COVID-19, normal, and pneumonia classes, respectively, on standard datasets. The proposed solution can be used as one element of patient evaluation along with gold-standard clinical and laboratory testing. © 2021, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer-Verlag London Ltd. part of Springer Nature.