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Cremating Muslim COVID-19 victims has no scientific basis, is more than a Muslim issue: activist

A nurse wearing a facemask walks outside the entrance of Sri Lanka’s Infectious Diseases Hospital near Colombo on March 17, 2020. LAKRUWAN WANNIARACHCHI / AFP

ECONOMYNEXT – On the evening of May 2, Zubair Fathima Rinosa was rushed to hospital after complaining of breathing difficulties. The mother of four from Modara was admitted to the emergency ward of the National Hospital in Colombo at 9pm that day.

Overnight, she was moved to ward no. 7, supposedly due to a lack of oxygen in the ward, after which she was again moved to the Incentive Care Unit (ICU).

Rinosa’s sons didn’t know until morning that their mother had been moved to the ICU of the ward dedicated to COVID-19 patients.

“The hospital staff had told our aunt who admitted our mother not to stick around because they had moved her to the ICU as she was diagnosed with coronavirus,” a family member told EconomyNext.

A doctor at the national hospital had told the family that Rinosa had tuberculosis and, allegedly without testing, mild symptoms of coronavirus. On May 3 and 4, she was in the ICU where her children claim no one was allowed to see her.

“On the 4th, at night, when my father went to the hospital, he was asked by hospital staff to buy six injections that were needed for my mother from a private pharmacy because the hospital was out of stock.”

The family could only buy two injections from a privately owned pharmacy Wattala. One family member told EconomyNext that they wondered why the state hospital asked that a patient purchase medicine from outside.

The next morning (May 5) at around 5.30, the family got a call from the Infectious Diseases Hospital (IDH) “confirming” that the 44-year-old woman had contracted the novel coronavirus. The family was advised not to go out. Rinosa’s family shared with EconomyNext their suspicions that their mother might have already passed away by the time they got the call from IDH.

According to one family  member, health officials had  visited their residence around 9.30 am that day to sanitise the place. Statements were taken from each member of the household, they claimed.

“At 11.30am my aunt got a call from the hospital to inform her that my mother was in a critical condition. We then got a call from the police saying that we should get ready to go with them for COVID-19 testing.”

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All the while, the family said, they had no idea what condition Rinosa was in as they had not been allowed to see her for two days straight.

Between 12.30 and 1pm, IDH called and told them that she had passed away.

The family had no time to process the news, as around 2.30pm, health officials had come to test everyone who had closely associated the victim. However, according to one family member, they weren’t immediately taken to the bus, but were kept waiting for some time.

One of the brothers was not taken to a quarantine center as he lives separately. It fell on him to attend to formalities after the rest of the family was taken to quarantine.

According to one brother, the body was kept outside the mortuary without a body bag. He was allowed to go inside only with a coverall, but claimed he wasn’t asked to wear masks or a protective helmet.

He claimed that he was forced to sign the cremation documents.

“When we argued against burning the whole body, the doctors at IDH said that they do not know what disease my mother has but quoting the national hospital reports said that she had coronavirus and therefore have to cremate the body. We refused to sign and the IDH doctors told me that if I don’t sign then they know what to do with the body, so I gave in,” he said.

Even then, the IDH doctors had not confirmed that their mother had coronavirus. However, the temporary death certificate issued by the hospital states that the cause of death is COVID-19.

Right before cremating the body, the doctors had wanted to cut a piece from the patient’s heart to test it again for COVID-19 for which they had sought a written approval from the family.

While all this was going on, the rest of the family were taken into the quarantine centre, where one family member claimed they were only checked for fever. The officials there had promised a PCR test the following day, but no test was conducted.

Two days after Rinosa was cremated against her family’s wishes, health authorities said she did not, in fact, have COVID-19.

The distraught family is demanding justice, but what the government will do to address growing allegations of insensitivity to the cultural needs of a community remains unclear. Making matters worse, there doesn’t appear to be any scientific consensus that burying COVID-19 victims is in any way harmful.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has a detailed guide on how to bury COVID-19 victims safely and with dignity.

“It is a common myth that persons who have died of a communicable disease should be cremated, but this is not true,” the WHO said.

The government’s approach to disposing of COVID-19 bodies has been contradictory, at best. Until March 30, the Ministry of Health webpage listed burial as a safe option for COVID-19 victims. However, on April 11, an amendment brought forward by the Minister of Health amended this regulation making cremation compulsory for all  COVID-19 or suspected COVID-19 victims.

As noted by human rights activist Shreen Abdul Saroor, a circular published on March 27, consistent with previous health regulations, allowed cremation or burial within 24 hours. This changed with the Ministry of Health’s Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID-19 Suspected and Confirmed Patients, dated March 31, which made cremation the only option.

Speaking to EconomyNext, Saroor said the government needs to accept that a mistake was made on its part so that it can be corrected moving forward.

“This needs to stop. The government should accept that they made a mistake. It’s okay to make mistakes, but the president has to stop this,” she said.

Saroor also warned of politicisation of the issue.

“There’s a lot of politicisation from publicity-seeking politicians, which is highly problematic. They shouldn’t use this platform for gaining votes. It’s kind of a collective punishment. These families need justice.”

Saroor is among civil society activists who have gone to courts against the alleged injustice. Another cremation conducted on March 30 of a Muslim COVID-19 victim, she said, is still suspicious, noting that not one member of the victim’s family who was in close proximity to the victim the entire time he was unwell did not test positive for the disease.

Recounting their story, Saroor claimed the family had been treated like criminals. They had been promised that their father would be allowed to be buried, only to have his body hastily cremated by authorities without so much as a visit from the family.

“If the government wants to cremate for some very unique reasons to Sri Lanka, they should prepare the community, a community that’s very sensitive towards this issue, on how they’re going to do it,” she said.

“It’s the health officials’ responsibility to understand the practices of different cultures,” she added, remarking that the incidents could set a bad precedence.

“Rinosa is ninth in the COVID-19 victims list, but government officials have said she later tested negative. Why won’t they remove her name then? Because they’re guilty. The moment they remove it it is going to be a legal complication.

The activist warned against making it a “Muslim issue”.

“I’m asking Muslim politiciins to not politicise it and not make it a Muslim issue. It is a sensitive issue and also people who are non Muslims what the future holds for them because many of them would want to be buried. Covid is not going to go away soon. Are they going to cremate everybody suspected of having it?  These are questions that need to be asked in a larger context,” she said. (Colombo/May19/2020)

Click here for an opinion piece by Saroor on this subject published on EconomyNext on May 14.

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