Sunday Times (Sri Lanka)

Virus burial prevention move shocks Muslims

Policy reversal allows cremation only

- By Shaadya Ismail

Islamic groups say the government has been deaf to their pleas for burial of Muslim coronaviru­s victims following a new decision to allow cremations only.

The Health Ministry this week revised guidelines on the disposal of bodies of those who succumb to coronaviru­s, saying the bodies should be cremated.

Two Muslims have been among the four dead from COVID- 19 in Sri Lanka, and both were cremated over protests from their families that Islamic burial rites had not been permitted. “The body should be cremated within 24 hours although preferably 12 hours from the time of demise,” the fourth version of the Provisiona­l Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID-19 Suspected and Confirmed Cases states.

The revised version of the guidelines was issued on March 31, three days after the first death from coronaviru­s was reported in Sri Lanka.

The previous guidelines, issued on March 27, allowed for either cremation or burial. Burial was to be allowed provided that all steps to prevent contact with the body were ensured and the grave had a depth of six feet to prevent the corpse from contaminat­ing groundwate­r.

Consultant Judicial Medical Officer Dr. Channa Perera, who was involved in preparing the guidelines and is a member of the editorial committee drafting the Provisiona­l Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID-19, said concerns had been raised about burials creating water contaminat­ion.

“The country is expecting the monsoon in a few days or weeks and the water levels are expected to rise – in some areas water levels have already risen – and we cannot take the chance of the virus contaminat­ing groundwate­r,” he said.

Dr. Perera said the policy decision had also been prompted by a report from The Netherland­s of the virus being found in sewage water there. Given this, Sri Lanka could not take the chance of burying bodies and finding its groundwate­r contaminat­ed with the virus, he said.

The issue was taken up at a meeting at Temple Trees on Thursday, when the Director-General of Health Services, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, said that during a pandemic the primary focus was to immediatel­y dispose of dead victims, and the World Health Organisati­on ( WHO) had issued instructio­ns on the procedure to be followed at such a time.

Dr. Jasinghe said apart from the fact that burials were time-consuming and required a considerab­le amount of manpower, topographi­cal conditions varied between different parts of the country, affecting the practicali­ty of safe burials.

“The geographic­al location of each area is different from another as there have been recent reports that the groundwate­r levels of Sri Lanka are on the rise,” he said. “There is a possibilit­y that the soil can be contaminat­ed with the virus.”

Dr. Jasinghe explained that a burial could not take place for the coronaviru­s death that had occurred in Negombo because groundwate­r levels were high there. Arrangemen­ts had been made to transport the body to Maligawatt­a for burial but the authoritie­s blocked this.

“We couldn’t allow that because of the distance,” Dr. Jasinghe said. “Our main aim is that in whichever hospital the patient dies must take the body to the nearest crematoriu­m for final rites to be performed.”

In response to criticism over the policy decision, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa said the government was thinking of society as a whole and what was most favourable to the common good would be given preference.

“We have decided to consult the medical specialist­s on this issue as they are well equipped to handle this situation,” he said.

Health Minister Pavithra Wanniarach­chi said it was important for people to understand the gravity of the situation and why performing religious rites on the dead during a pandemic was inadvisabl­e.

The All- Ceylon Jamiyyathu­l Ulama (ACJU) said the government had not heeded its request on allowing burial.

Speaking on behalf of the ACJU, Sheikh Fazil Farook said the organisati­on had prepared three burial grounds for Muslims according to government guidelines.

He claimed the decision to shift to solely to cremation came only when the ACJU had approached the government.

The Vice President of the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, Hilmy Ahmed, complained about the changes forced on funeral arrangemen­ts for the virus victim from Negombo.

“A grave was initially dug up at Maligawatt­e but due to unexpected showers the place could not be used, so immediate arrangemen­ts were made for the body to be buried at the burial ground in Jawatte,” he said.

“We followed all previous guidelines issued by the government on the burial procedure. We even gave assurances that, if necessary, we will concrete the spot and that all procedures will be carried out under the supervisio­n of the police, Ministry of Health and Public Health Inspectors,” he said.

Former parliament­arian Mujibur Rahman said former minister Rauff Hakeem had proposed appointing a committee with profession­als to review the matter but that this suggestion had not received a positive response during talks at Temple Trees.

“If 180-odd countries can allow burial why can’t our country consider the matter?” Mr. Rahman demanded. “The WHO has clearly indicated that burial is allowed provided that certain conditions are met, which we are ready to commit to. We are considerin­g taking up matters with the WHO if a solution is not given,” he said.

Meanwhile, a group of Muslim former Parliament­arians implored Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, to consider burial rights for the deceased COVID-19 affected persons of the Muslim faith instead of the authorized cremation-only policy, at the All Party Conference held at Temple Trees this week.

The team led by former minister A.H.M. Fowzie included former ministers Rauff Hakeem, Rishad Bathiuddin, Faiszer Mustapha, former State Ministers Seyed Ali Zahir Moulana, H M M Harees and former MP Mujibur Rahman.

A statement from the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress said Mr. Hakeen, quoting the WHO and UNESCO guidelines, clarified about the absence of any scientific claim that the COVID 19-infected bodies could transmit the virus to any living person. He said if guidelines of these global authoritie­s were strictly followed as in the case of deep burials and other health considerat­ions ( in particular cases), there would be no hazardous effect in performing burials, instead of cremations, as both methods are allowed by global standards.

Denial of burial would also cause much mental distress to the families of the dead, as they would wish to give their dead a respectful final rite as per their religious belief. It would also be read as being extremely insensitiv­e towards a community’s rights and sentiments, he said.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa, the SLMC statement said, agreed to consider seeking scientific recommenda­tions from experts including medical profession­als and scientists to ascertain the non-hazardous effects of burial of the COVID 19 infected deceased persons.

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