Distressing cremation of Muslim COVID-19 victims

Friday, 6 November 2020 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As news breaks of each cremation of a Muslim victim, the distress is immediately personal for many Sri Lankan Muslims. It brings to mind the care with which they have buried their own deceased, in other instances, in keeping with the belief that burial itself is a blessing and honour for Muslims

By Amalini De Sayrah and Swasthika Arulingam

‘As a Muslim in this country, I’m more afraid of being cremated after death (due to corona) than the actual dying itself.’

Yamin Ahmed Tweeted the above on 1 November, one day after it was announced that the last three recorded deaths of COVID-19 in Sri Lanka, all of Muslims, had seen the bodies cremated for disposal. These are not the first and possibly won’t be the last bodies of Muslims disposed of in a manner prohibited by their faith, in the supposed interests of public health.

Cremation is prohibited in the Islamic faith, as ‘it is considered a violation of the dignity of the human body’. While those of other religions may prefer burial as well, Islam is the one religion where cremation is a direct clash with teachings of the faith. This also changes how grieving family members see their loved ones’ journeys to the afterlife.

On 30 March, an elderly Muslim man from Poruthota in Negombo was admitted to hospital by his son. A few hours later, he heard from people in his neighbourhood who had seen it on the media that his father had passed away of COVID-19. He insists that the hospital did not call him until he got in touch with them to confirm this. 

He was informed that in the span of four hours – with curfew in place in his locality – he would need to arrange for the burial to take place. A grave was prepared in the local mosque. The next call he received, at almost midnight, told him that his father’s body had been cremated. On recalling the events to a lawyer, he uses the word ‘paththavachchittaanga’, which in Tamil implies that the body had already been set on fire.

To this day, the family has not received the results of a PCR test that would confirm whether he did in fact die of COVID-19. His death certificate cites pneumonia and coronavirus as the causes of death. However, his family and loved ones who were in close contact with him in his last days, and have since spent months in quarantine centres, have all repeatedly tested negative for the virus.

Right up until 30 March, the Ministry of Health webpage listed burial as a safe option for COVID-19 victims. To this date, the WHO lists burial as a viable option for COVID-19 infected bodies. On 31 March, the day the deceased in Negombo was cremated, the Ministry of Health amended its Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID-19 Suspected and Confirmed Patients, which made cremation the only option. On 11 April, the Minister of Health issued a Gazette that made cremation compulsory for COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 victims.

Activist Shreen Saroor writing in EconomyNext noted that ‘the overnight removal of the previous guideline suggests it was done to justify the wrongdoing on the 30th’. Since then, Muslim families who lost loved ones to COVID have spoken to the media claiming they were pressured to sign a form stating they consented to the cremation, and did so out of fear of possible repercussions. 

There have been other instances where Muslims who died for reasons other than COVID were cremated against their families’ wishes, two of which have been reported in the media. In these cases, too, PCR tests were either not provided to the families, or were much later revealed to be negative.

Dr. Sugath Samaraweera, the Government’s Chief Epidemiologist, has told the media that burials could contaminate ground drinking water, and that it was following expert medical advice in mandating cremations for COVID-19 victims. However, among the Fundamental Rights petitions filed in the Supreme Court against the cremations, one cites significant scientific knowledge to suggest otherwise.

Since survival studies on the SARS-CoV-2 virus are not available, Prof. Matthew Koci, Professor of Immunology, Virology and Host-Pathogen interactions of the North Carolina State University, gave a statement in May 2020 referencing related studies on avian influenza virus, an enveloped virus similar to the coronavirus.  He stated that in studies looking at how avian influenza survived in chicken carcasses, 90% of the virus was inactivated in around 15 days when the carcass was left at room temperature. If the carcass was held at refrigerator temperatures (4 °C/40 °F), the virus lasted 4.5 times longer – that’s more than two months. Through a personal communication, a professor of environmental science clarified that with regard to concerns on the virus’ impact on groundwater, the viral load is likely to be diluted in the shallow water table, and further reduced by subsequent monsoon rains. Ground water is never consumed directly and is only drunk after chlorination, which would destroy any remaining viral particles.

The Professor further went on to elaborate that the risk associated from dead bodies for disease transmission are threefold, and how each of these risks relate to the coronavirus.

Firstly, the infectious agent – the SARS-CoV-2 virus – from a dead body is incapable of causing infection, as described in the statement above. 

Secondly, exposure to that infectious agent is also mitigated as ground water is never consumed directly. It is treated at water treatment plants and the intervening time period from the time of a possible contamination and consumption is immense. In addition, water bodies are so large that a long-lived virus – which the coronavirus is not – would be diluted to extremely low levels.

Finally, the risk of the infectious agent’s entry into a susceptible host is also removed as the coronavirus infection does not occur by food or water consumption – it is primarily through inhalation by the nose.

Several countries with higher death rates than Sri Lanka are continuing to bury their COVID-dead. The Maldives, with a smaller landmass than Sri Lanka and higher threats to groundwater due to their low sea-level, is also among those burying those who died of COVID. 

The one other instance of cremations of COVID deaths reported in international media is when bodies cannot be transported overseas for burials at home. Such is the case the nearly 70 Sri Lankan migrant workers in Gulf countries who succumbed to the illness. Sri Lanka appears to be the one country enforcing cremation for in-country COVID deaths. Given that burials do not breach any international best practices, former Member of Parliament Ali Zahir Moulana notes that the religious sentiments of the Muslim community ‘has to be recognised with humanity and mutual respect’.

Moulana, who was one of those who put forth a Fundamental Rights petition against the mandatory cremations, states that Sri Lankan health regulations maintaining an exception to what is practiced worldwide remains ‘baffling’. 

The regulations for cremation which impact the Muslim community disproportionately cannot be considered without taking into account the social and political violence against this community in recent years. The pandemic arrived in Sri Lanka in a context where anti-Muslim sentiment was at a tense high following the Easter Sunday bomb attacks that were carried out by Islamist fundamentalists, and followed by riots against Muslim communities in the country’s North-Western Province. These were one in a string of anti-Muslim riots over the last decade, in Mawanella, Aluthgama and Digana, that targeted the community’s residences, businesses and religious sites.

In the context of the pandemic alone, Muslims have been blamed for intentionally spreading the disease, unfounded claims that have not been verified or challenged by Government officials. On occasion, Government officials and media have staunchly repeated these claims, that have no basis in fact. Irresponsible media reporting also dwells on the ethnicity of the COVID victims, further fuelling hate speech against Muslims for their actions or inactions in not preventing or causing the spread of COVID-19. 

As news breaks of each cremation of a Muslim victim, the distress is immediately personal for many Sri Lankan Muslims. It brings to mind the care with which they have buried their own deceased, in other instances, in keeping with the belief that burial itself is a blessing and honour for Muslims.

As the cremation was announced of a 19-year old disabled boy who passed away of COVID, one such individual posted the following prayer on his Facebook page: ‘May the Lord grant him a higher place in heaven; may he cool the fires that burn his body’.

(The writers are members of the Liberation Movement.)