By P.K.Balachandran/Daily Express
As on Monday April 22, there were 2.47 million COVID 19 positive cases world-wide, and 169,006 had died of the infection according to WHO. The dead were either buried or cremated. And in both cases, the procedure was largely according to the WHO guidelines of March 24.
However, China and Sri Lanka there are variations from country to country and from society to society, according to the strength of local sentiments, the level of democracy and the extent of State power.
WHO had said that people who had died of COVID-19 could be buried or cremated. But the funeral should meet national and local requirements that might dictate the handling and disposition of the remains. Family and friends may view the body after it has been prepared for burial, in accordance with customs. But they should not touch or kiss the body and should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water after the viewing. Those tasked with placing the body in the grave, on the funeral pyre, should wear gloves and wash their hands with soap and water once the burial is complete.
Importantly, WHO made it a point to say that the dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout.
WHO made it explicit that it discourages the hasty disposal of the dead. “Authorities should manage each situation on a case-by-case basis, balancing the rights of the family, the need to investigate the cause of death, and the risks of exposure to infection,”
If a body with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 is selected for autopsy, health care facilities must ensure that safety measures are in place to protect those performing the autopsy. But autopsies appear not to take place in many countries. In Bangladesh, for example, autopsy is not performed on COVID-19 dead.
In Sri Lanka, the Quarantine and Prevention of Diseases Ordinance was amended on April 11 by a gazette which banned burial of COVID-19 victims and declared that the victims “shall be cremated”. The amended law also prevented the victim’s bodies being handed over to relations.
This stipulation led to protests by Muslim leaders on religious grounds (as burial and the rites associated with it are mandated by Islam). The decision was also taken without prior consultations with stakeholders.
However, the government stuck to its guns saying that the water table in many parts of the country is such that the buried bodies could be a source of deadly contamination.
WHO maintains that the dead body need not be a source of infection. One doctor M.E.Mohammad wrote in Colombo Telegraph that viruses cannot survive in a dead body.
But given the fact that the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government is powerful and the army is in charge of COVID-19 prevention, dissenting voices went silent.
Sri Lanka seems to be following the Chinese model in its anti-COVID-19 campaign. The lockdown aims to match the lockdown in China. Almost every shop is shut in the island and people are made to get food and other necessities through telephonic orders.
On February 1, China’s National Health Commission issued regulations stating that all victims who had died of the coronavirus must be cremated. In many cases, bodies of Covid-19 patients were cremated immediately after death, even in the absence of family members.
“No farewell ceremonies or other funeral activities involving the corpse shall be held,” the NHC announcement said. Until recently, in Wuhan, it was extremely difficult for families to pick up their loved ones’ ashes.
Apart from Sri Lanka and China, other countries allow burials done under WHO rules.
In Kashmir, which is a Muslim-majority area in India, both the clerics and the doctors said that medical science should not be ignored. Only family members should participate in a COVID-19 funeral and all should wear protection kits. The grave should be 8 ft. deep not 6 ft.
The Indian central government’s new guidelines prohibit bathing or embalming the corpse of a COVID-19 victim. Relations and admirers are banned from kissing or hugging the body. But body-washing is mandatory in Islam.
In Mumbai, the municipal authorities announced in March that all COVID-19 bodies must be cremated. The order said the city’s burial grounds were in densely-populated areas, which might pose a risk of contamination. But after a Muslim politician intervened, the order was withdrawn within hours. Religious rites are allowed.
In Islamic Pakistan, burial is the only way, as Islam dictates it. But those performing religious rites have to wear appropriate protective gear. Social distancing is also enjoined during the rites and burial. No hugging and kissing the body is allowed. Those involved in the process must were shoe covers, perform hand hygiene, put on a gown, face mask and safety goggles and gloves.
The dead body should be washed/bathed with water three times as soon as possible after death, preferably within hours.
Distant Burials in Turkey
In Islamic Turkey, crowded gathering at funerals have been replaced by “distance burials.” Only those physically involved in the burial are allowed at the pre-burial body washing ritual normally attended by close family members.
Only the closest relatives can attend the burial, with the imam praying from a safe distance, and speaking through a mask, said a report. Authorities have forbidden mourners from approaching the coffin even for a last look or expression of grief.
Many countries are limiting the number of mourners allowed to attend funerals. In both Brazil and France, authorities urge people to limit funerals to ten attendees.
In Brazil, the government also specifies that mourners must remain about six feet apart — a stark contrast to traditional funeral gatherings which often last all day and are attended by hundreds of people.
In the Philippines, bodies have to be buried within 12 hours and this in a country where bodies are kept for three to seven days normally.
(The picture at the top shows a grave being dug in Delhi)