By Shivanthi Ranasinghe
At the time of writing, Sri Lanka has suffered six deaths due to complications arising from the COVID-19 virus. Information on the latest victim, who died few hours ago, is yet to be made public. Three of the victims were Sinhalese, out of which two were Buddhists (1st and 4th victims) and one was Catholic (the 5th), whilst the other two were Muslims (2nd and 3rd). The bodies of all were disposed in the same manner, following the most stringent procedures to eliminate any possibility of contamination – now or in the future.
There was a seventh patient, whose body was also disposed in this same manner. This patient however was not infected with COVID-19. This patient was warded in Kalubowila Hospital for a different ailment. Whilst this patient was thus receiving treatment, another patient in the same ward was tested positive for COVID-19.
Immediately, the hospital officials took steps to transfer that patient tested positive for COVID-19 to the Institute of Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH). At the same time, all the other patients in this ward were transferred to the Homagama Base Hospital, which is dedicated to only treat patients who may have got exposed to the virus but not yet confirmed as infected. That night, this patient succumbed to his illness for which he was hospitalized.
Test results confirmed that he was not infected with the virus. Nevertheless, his body too was disposed in the same manner as the other five COVID-19 victims. This eliminated any possibility of contamination.
Disposing the Dead Body of a COVID-19 Patient
These seven patients died on different days. Yet, the same stringent procedures were followed in all these cases. As such, the bodies were,
– Not washed, embalmed or unnecessarily touched;
– Placed inside a sealed bag and then inside a sealed coffin;
– Not allowed final rites;
– Taken to the crematorium within about 15 hours after death;
– Only two of the closest relatives allowed to be present;
– Cremated in an incinerator that generates a heat of over 1,200 centigrade. The COVID-19 virus cannot survive temperatures over 30 centigrade.
– The protective garments of the pallbearers were also destroyed at the same time;
– Crematorium was disinfected afterwards;
– All personnel present was sprayed with disinfectant from head to toe;
– The vehicle that transported the body also disinfected.
Before placing the coffin in the incinerator, a Government Medical Officer explained to the nearest relative the cause of death and the procedure that was about to be carried out.
It must be emphasized that none of the patients, who belonged to different faiths, had their final rites performed. It was not to condemn the patients or disrespect them, but to ensure
– Speed and
– Minimum exposure.
Cremation over Burial
A controversy over cremation of Muslims began with a message posted in Facebook by Leader of the Muslim Congress MP Rauf Hakeem. Whether his post initiated the controversy or whether he simply articulated some discontent from within the Muslim community is difficult to say.
However, at the All Party Conference, he did not want to bring this issue before the assembly. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa then pointed out that there is nothing to hide and it is best to discuss this matter openly as all political leaders and officials responsible for decision making were present.
After much insistence from the Premier, MP Hakeem noted his concerns as,
– According to the earlier guidelines issued by the Director General of Health Services Dr Anil Jasinghe, burial or cremation was permissible
– This is in line with the guidelines issued by the WHO as well
– WHO has clearly stated that the possibility of the COVID-19 spreading from a corpse is a myth.
Dr Jasinghe, who was also present at this conference, then explained the reasons for the officials to eventually choose cremation as the best and most effective means to dispose bodies of COVID-19 positive patients as,
– The WHO guidelines is only a general guideline. It has not taken into consideration the topography and other factors that are unique to each country.
– In Sri Lanka, the water table is high, which is the main issue in this matter.
– In addition, our soil is very porous and the composition itself is very absorbant. This might pose a danger of becoming a medium for the virus to spread.
– The topography in Sri Lanka changes within kilometers. This makes it difficult to separate areas with a clear demarcation line. Therefore, it is not possible to accommodate these variations when formulating a standard.
– It is the people that needs to be taken into consideration. Then, differentiate people according to ethnic groups is not possible.
– When a death occurs, the priority is to dispose the body as quickly as possible. Thus it needs to be disposed at the closest possible location.
It must be also noted that,
– As SLMC leader Hakeem quoted at the All Party Conference, WHO does note that, “It is a common myth that persons who have died of a communicable disease should be cremated, but this is not true.” However, with regard to COVID-19 virus, WHO while noting that,
“To date there is no evidence of persons having become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who died from COVID-19”, also notes that,
“this is a new virus whose source and disease progression are not yet entirely clear, more precautions may be used until further information becomes available.”
At the moment of writing, the number of COVID-19 infected patients in Sri Lanka are low:
total number of infected – 185; number of active cases – 137; number of recovered – 42 and number of deaths – 6.
However, according to the mathematical modeling done by the Medical Faculty of Colombo University, the number of infected can reach as high as 1,400.
Dr Jasinghe assures that the free health service in Sri Lanka is getting ready to meet this challenge.
In the meantime, the Government Medical Officers Association has warned that if this number exceeds 2,500, our systems will fail.
It is impossible at this stage to predict whether the numbers would reach 1,400 or exceed 2,500.
This virus is spreading exponentially. We do not have any immunity against it. Therefore, we must physically stop it from spreading.
Unlike in a war, where the outcome is dependent largely on the combatants, in this crisis the outcome lies with each and every individual citizen. This means that we are dealing with a situation with a large number of variables.
For example, the third Sri Lankan patient to die of this virus has compromised at least 326 people through simple association. Thus it is clear that one person’s irresponsible act(s) can unravel even the best laid plans.
Hence, we must prepare for the possibility of dealing with a large number of deaths, as is the reality in many other countries.
As WHO notes, we still know very little about this virus. According to the findings so far, it is believed that while heat kills it, dampness helps it to thrive. What does this mean in an untreated body filling with fluids remains to be seen. Certain scientists claim that the virus can survive in the refrigerator for up to 28 days. This of course perhaps needs to be verified further by other scientific sources as well.
Even though this body is in a sealed body bag and in a sealed coffin, it is not possible for us to guarantee the outcome in 100 or more years. One may dismiss this as far fetched or an exaggerated worry. At the same time, let us not dismiss offhand accounts of scientists and excavators dying suddenly due to unknown cause after days of opening ancient tombs and coffins. It is easy enough to blame a mysterious curse, when in fact it might have been a virus as deadly as COVID-19. The last thing we would want is for this highly infectious, deathly virus to revisit our world – even 100 or 1,000 years later.
Taking all these factors on board, it is obvious to the logical mind that the best option is to destroy this virus completely.
Media Freedom without Responsibility is not Possible
When so many countries with advanced healthcare systems are failing before COVID-19, Sri Lanka is managing to keep the situation thus far under control. It is neither incidental nor coincidental. It is against all odds and tremendous challenges that Sri Lanka is doing so.
It is due to meticulous planning that Sri Lanka has thus far succeeded. From the beginning, Sri Lanka placed systems to manage every aspect of the crisis. The Administration anticipated possibility of the virus reaching Sri Lanka before even WHO warned the world of the pandemic. Measures were taken long before supply chains got disrupted.
Singapore Prime Minister addressing his nation admitted that their systems are struggling to find the contacts of the infected. In Sri Lanka, all hands in the intelligence agencies are on the job. The accuracy of identifying the contacts and their associations in turn have contributed largely to containing this virus in Sri Lanka.
Yet, instead of reporting on Sri Lanka’s success or even mentioning it, certain international media channels have erroneously reported that the Government,
– Held hostage by extreme hardline Buddhist monks
– Had forcibly cremated the bodies of the Muslim patients
– To hurt the feelings of the Muslims.
Very mischievously, these journalists have completely omitted that the final rites of the other patients, who were not Muslim, were also not allowed. It must be noted that the Catholic too bury their dead. Buddhists also sometimes opt for burial than cremation.
This raises the question, whether these journalists who wrote these very erroneous and utterly irresponsible articles were truly ignorant that,
– Buddhists and a Catholic were also among the dead;
– Final rites of all were not performed;
– The disposal of the bodies was not in line with any cultural values or religious practices.
The bodies of the patients who were Buddhists were not treated any differently from those of other faiths. This thus discredits the accusations that,
– Buddhist monks played a decisive role in this matter;
– the bodies of the Muslim patients were cremated to hurt the Muslims.
Interestingly, though these articles appear in different channels, the same errors are seen to eclipse in most reports. Perhaps these journalists were too lazy to do their own homework. They may have copied each other’s work and instead of verifying, modified it enough to pass it off as their own work. It is also possible that these journalists might have been sponsored to write such tribal-minded, incidiary articles. Either way, the result is the same. Their unprofessionalism compromises the integrity of the media.
Today, it is not possible for a country that allows Internet technologies, social media and messaging platforms to suppress media. The options these tools provide are so vast and versatile that the media will always find a gap to reach the public. In the past couple of years there had been attempts to blackout the media, but with zero success. Users found Virtual Private Networks, which worked just as well.
Therefore, media freedom is now more in the hands of the media than with the Government. It is important never to lose sight of the objective of ensuring media freedom. It is to guard the right of our audience to access facts true to the case. Media as such needs to be free to report comprehensively and without bias. Media Freedom must never be misconstrued as the right to doctor information to promote a subversive agenda or for personal gain.
When vital facts are omitted, it amounts to falsifying information. This infringes on the audience’s right to understand the situation in its true context. It is a moot point whether the reporter failed to be true to the profession for personal gain, with malicious intent or due to sheer incompetence. The result is the same. The audience’s right to know the truth and the right to make decisions based on true facts gets compromised.
(The picture at the top shows the Borella crematorium in Colombo)