ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s continuing anti-Muslim policies are shameful as we as heirs to a civilization that goes back millennia are not showing the maturity and culture to permit the Muslims among us to lay their dead to rest according to their beliefs.
The anger and the frustration building up in the minority is also dangerous and can fray national unity which is critical in this time of the Covid pandemic.
In the Abrahamic tradition, Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that they will be resurrected “on the last day.” In order that takes place, the tradition has been to bury the dead and not cremate.
The Catholic Church permitted cremation in 1963 “under special circumstances.”
As we have recorded in these columns, time and time again, the decision to cremate the remains of those who die of Covid 19 regardless of the preferences of the families of the deceased is not based on science and reason.
Instead, it appears to me that the decision is based entirely on a racist, anti-minority mindset propagated by a small section of Sinhala supremacists that appear to wield enormous influence over the government.
These extremists argue that giving over the body of a deceased Covid patient to Muslims will allow them to weaponise the virus and use it as a terror weapon.
That a government that has a comfortable two-thirds majority in Parliament led by a President who won his election with a massive majority is cowed down by these extremists is mind-boggling.
No science no reason
One of the world’s leading Virologists Professor Malik Peiris was asked at a recent Keystone Symposium whether the Covid virus can live in a cadaver and whether there is the possibility of contaminating groundwater in case the remains of a Covid deceased is buried had this answer:
“No, that is a simple answer because viruses can only replicate in living cells, unlike bacteria. Some types of bacteria can replicate out in the environment. But viruses by definition can replicate only inside living cells. So once the patient has died and the cells have died the virus can no longer replicate and the virus will die” he said.
Peiris who is the Virology Chair at the University of Hong Kong and the only Sri Lankan Fellow of the Royal Society also points out that “the period of infectiousness (from Covid) is before the patient develops symptoms and four or five days after the patient develops symptoms. There is no evidence that in the case of Covid the dead body is a major source of transmission. That is why if the body is wrapped in an impervious covering and buried six feet deep it cannot contaminate the ground.”
Peiris’s thinking is in line with the World Health Organisation which allows both burials and cremation of the remains of Covid patients. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the US Centre for Disease control also concur. Around the world, 194 countries allow burials and two, China and Sri Lanka don’t.
In May the then Director General of Health Services Dr Anil Jasinghe told reporters that cremation or burial is allowed. He said that burial is allowed as long as the contamination of the water table does not take place.
This is what the lobby against burial has been quoting to justify a subsequent gazette which outlawed the procedure.
They point to an article written by Prof Meththika Vithanage of the University of Shri Jayewardenepura in the Sri Lankan Scientist where she argues viruses in buried cadavers can contaminate the groundwater.
Vithanage, a Hydrogeologist, wrote that “in the case of viruses, recent studies indicate that viral (sic) may transport in soil with rainfall infiltration and extends specifically to drinking water from an untreated groundwater source. Several scientific publications report virus occurrence rates of about 30 per cent of groundwater.”
She also wrote that the “ex-filtration from sewers and cemeteries are the most likely source of human viruses to this groundwater system, and leakage from sewers during heavy precipitation enhanced virus transport.”
The “appalling” silence of the doctors
So what does the medical profession in Sri Lanka believe? We really do not know as they are mostly silent.
Consultant Psychiatrist Dr Shehan Williams in a recent public post said that it was time that Sri Lankan professional bodies in the health sector spoke up.
“I feel the Sri Lanka Medical Association Inter-Collegiate Committee has a responsibility to present the scientific basis for the practice of cremation and whether it is really necessary or not,” he wrote.
“The silence of our medical profession really appalls me when it comes to certain issues, making me wonder whether our establishment too is steeped in racism or is willing to ignore science and ethics due to fear.”
Williams also referred to the recent incident where the authorities cremated the remains of a 20-day old Muslim boy who died at the Lady Ridgeway Hospital supposedly of Covid 19.
The death and the cremation of the baby sent shock waves through society at a time that many Muslim families did not claim the remains of their relatives who had died of the disease as they did not want to sign documents allowing cremation as they did not want to be part of the process which they consider as a mortal sin.
Williams said he is “increasingly disturbed about the issue of cremations in this country and the impact it is having on a certain minority community, especially in the context of the recent death of a 20-day old infant at LRH.”
“My action is based on the psychological consequences resulting from this to the persons concerned when they are unable to grieve for their loved ones in the context of their beliefs and rituals which have been practised for centuries,” he said.
“The recent incident at the LRH further highlights the communication and ethics of our professionals in the way it has been handled. I have no doubt that the doctors concerned would have done their best for the child in terms of the treatment. The issue, however, is that we fail in breaking bad news or empathizing with our patients or their families and the senior-most professional concerned does not take this responsibility in most instances in our country,” Williams added.
“I am sorry to disturb a hornet’s nest but I cannot keep silent any longer,” Williams said.
The government’s new poster-boy for its Muslim supporters is Justice Minister Mohamed Ali Sabry who in recent days has become an advocate for the community’s right to bury.
In a long interview with Haricreations’ Lahiru Mudalige, Ali Sabry argued that the decision whether to allow burials or not has to be based on science, and faulted the argument that is presented by those who say the groundwater will be contaminated.
He also said that the entire ritual carried out by Muslims at a funeral consists of four parts, the bathing of the body, the wrapping of a White cloth, the prayer gathering and finally the burial.
“We have given up the first three parts because of Covid as all of those violate the health guidelines. The Burial does not, so please let us do that,” he said in the interview.
Apart from that, Muslim communities across the country have complained that the Health Authorities have harassed them and in Atalugama and several other places intentionally misrepresented them in the media by lying that the community had not appeared for PCR tests.
Ali Sabry also articulated a concern many community leaders have told us. That the harassment and particularly the unfair ban on burials would deeply disillusion the youth.
“That is particularly dangerous,” Ali Sabry said warning that the young people can become radicalized.
“Extremists have tried to stage attacks in many parts of the country, but most of those attacks were thwarted because the countries that those threats emerged had good relations with the Muslim community and the information about the danger came from within them,” he said.
So it is important to keep good relations, show them kindness and understanding and accept their differences, the Justice Minister said.
“Otherwise you might as well line up all the Muslims shoot them and throw them in the sea.”
I will end this column by reproducing poem written from the point of Shayk – the 20-day old baby who died at the LRH and was cremated.
You forgot Metta
The precept of loving-kindness
In the way you treated me
And relegated me-
Just another ‘body’ to the flames
You ignored Karuna
The act of all embracing compassion
When you chased my parents away
And denied me
A decent burial
You forgot about Muditha
Sincere joy at the happiness of others
When you didn’t care about my culture
And rejoiced instead at the fear and terror
You brought to my tiny body
And you didn’t consider Upekkha
Equanimity and balance
When you adjudicate,
Your justice not tempered with fairness
But in a court deaf, dumb and blind with hate.
All of twenty days old
Came into this world
Kicking and screaming,
With a hunger to live
In a pyre of flames
Fuelled by hatred, fear and injustice
by Shahama Raji Saleem
(Colombo, December 18, 2020)
By Arjuna Ranawana