Denied Death Rights of Sri Lankan Minority

For most people, the effects of COVID-19 are already painful enough. The fear of contracting the virus, the fear of spreading it to others, the fear of seeing loved ones suffer, the fear of someone close dying. But for Sri Lankan Muslims and Christians, there is yet another fear: the fear of not being able to bury your loved ones and being denied dignity in that final moment. 
A variety of social and cultural problems have been brought to the fore by the COVID-19 pandemic, concerning disease transmission, case diagnosis, care, prevention and control, and also regarding the management of dead bodies. Such complex interactions can create conditions that may adversely affect the activities of pandemic control. Such a condition has been generated by the existing guidelines on the safe disposal of dead bodies of individuals infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus in Sri Lanka.

Muslims who fall victim to COVID-19 are unjustly excluded from being laid to rest per their religious convictions and are, forcefully cremated. In Islam, cremating a dead body is prohibited, and the callous disregard for religious practices shown by the state has caused considerable distress among the Muslim community, understandably. Although living in peace in Sri Lanka is becoming increasingly difficult for Muslims, with the constant fear of further attacks, prejudice and violence hanging over the group, the government has used COVID-19 as an excuse to ensure that Sri Lankan Muslims cannot even die in peace.

Sri Lanka is one of the few countries in the world that have made cremations compulsory for individuals who have died or are suspected of dying from COVID-19. This is despite guidelines from the World Health Organization that originally permitted both burials and cremations last year. The Ministry of Health in Sri Lanka revised the guidelines to make cremation mandatory after the body of the first Muslim to succumb to the virus was forcefully cremated against the wishes of the victim’s relatives and amid vehement protests from religious leaders, politicians and the larger Muslim community. The government’s chief epidemiologist claimed that burials would “contaminate ground drinking water”. However, according to interim guidance set out by the World Health Organization on the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19, victims of the virus can be buried or cremated.

The study published by the College of Community Physicists of Sri Lanka, reports that SARS-CoV-2 spread directly through groundwater has not been scientifically substantiated and that there is no evidence that the virus could be transmitted by drinking water. According to viral biology, to live for a long time, these viruses need a host cell. And there are experimental approaches available that could be implemented to mitigate these impacts such as insulation, processing and treatment of the leachate. The principal sources and routes of potential transmission of SARS-CoV-2 in water systems could be hospital sewage, waste from isolation and quarantine centres, faecal-oral transmission, contaminated surface and groundwater sources and contaminated sewage, but not the dead bodies.

Muslims and Christians bury the dead. But Sri Lanka’s mandatory cremation policy for those infected with COVID-19 has left minority communities feeling helpless and angry. Further, the College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka said that, following the strict guidelines recommended by the Ministry of Health, each citizen should be permitted to be cremated or buried per his/her and the family’s desire. In releasing its position paper on the debate on the compulsory cremation of COVID-19 victims, the CCPSL claimed that there is no solid evidence that the burial of dead bodies will increase the spread of the disease. The study added that no single case of COVID-19 has been recorded due to a virus transmitted through a dead body with more than 85,000 published scientific literature on COVID-19.

On February 11, the day after Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s announcement supposedly ending the ban, Mohamed Kamaldeen Mohamed Sameem was cremated in Anamaduwa. Friends of the 40-year-old social activist say authorities initially claimed he committed suicide, but later changed the cause of death to Covid-19 and hastily cremated the body. In another case, the family of a 26-year-old physiotherapist who reportedly died suddenly in his sleep have asked the Court of Appeal to prevent cremation after hospital authorities announced he died with Covid-19.

The cremations policy has caused intense distress to Muslims since it was implemented in March 2020. Frequently, the authorities proceed with the cremation even while families question the diagnosis and request further checks. The force cremations have been condemned by UN rights experts, and by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).

Among those who applauded the initial announcement of Sri Lankan prime minister regarding the end of the force cremations, was Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is due to visit Sri Lanka on February 22. Sri Lanka is anxious to have the support of Pakistan, an OIC member, at the upcoming session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, which begins in Geneva the same day. The council is expected to consider a new resolution responding to mounting rights concerns in Sri Lanka, including the treatment of Muslims. The government’s evident lack of empathy in addressing the heartfelt concerns of Muslims regarding forced cremations is further evidence of the need for Human Rights Council action on Sri Lanka.

WHO, CDC and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control had issued clear and extensive guidelines on handling dead bodies confirmed or suspected as having COVID-19, with detailed attention to the procedures about, handling the body in the ward, mortuary, funeral home, during transfer, and crematorium or burial site. At the same time, these guidelines strongly discourage any ritual practice which may involve the risk of disease transmission. Nevertheless, all these global pandemic control programs stipulate that the victims can be “buried or cremated” with all precautions mentioned earlier.

By Jumana Jabeer

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