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Saturday October 23rd, 2021

Sri Lanka volunteers take charge in digitally memorialising COVID-19 victims

ECONOMYNEXT – Funerals in Sri Lanka have traditionally been a somewhat communal affair that sees extended family, neighbours, friends, colleagues and sometimes the entire village come together to mourn the dearly departed and to comfort the living.

This sense of shared loss often transcend ethnic and religious lines and, depending on custom, the number of hours, days, or even weeks spent with the dead offer the surviving loved ones at least a semblance of closure.

The COVID-19 epidemic took much from Sri Lankans of all walks of life. Cruelly, it also robbed them of this crucial, vital sense of closure that might’ve provided them some solace through the pain.

The hygiene regime that took over every aspect of day-to-day life demanded that bodies be dispensed within just 24 hours, with minimal family participation and under strict health guidelines. A vast majority of the victims succumbed to the disease in a hospital bed, far away from anyone who knew their favourite colour or what they liked to do in their spare time.

Very few got do say goodbye.

To date, 13,229 lives have been lost to the disease: each of them a unique human being with their own stories, hopes and dreams; a real, whole person with their own struggles, their own friendships and relationships. Most of them just a number to most others. A statistic.

As the death toll mounted and daily deaths went from single to double to triple digits, the media coverage necessarily became more impersonal. The government information department, which used to provide detailed information about victims, also limited it to a single number by June.

It was then that a group of Sri Lankan volunteers decided to take matters into their own hands.

Earlier this week, this group launched a digital memorial to commemorate all victims of COVID-19 – every single one of them.

EconomyNext caught up with two of the team behind the website: Amalini De Sayrah and Sachini Perera.

In an email interview, the two volunteers said the idea for the project came about when reporting of COVID-19 deaths began to dwindle, even as the number of deaths and infections continued to rise.

“Many of us noticed that the ways deaths were being reported had become even more abstract than before. Whereas early in the pandemic the government press releases gave out more specific details of some of the people who died each day like their age, sex, hometown and causes of death, after June 2021 this changed to just numbers and tables,” the volunteers said.

A similar pattern was observed during the 30-year civil war and other crisis such as 2004 tsunami.

“We wanted to try and challenge this to show that behind each number is a person with their own identity and story.”

Another objective behind the project was to “reclaim some collective catharsis over what is going on as grieving became an isolated experience due to COVID-19 lockdown and restrictions.”

De Sayrah and Perera said although there was an ongoing count of deaths, official reports did not show the scale of the daily death rates and the enormity of what was going on or considered which areas and communities were most affected.

Even some media outlets had reported daily deaths as ‘only’ a certain number of deaths. There was a danger of feeling that the reduced numbers would lead many to believe that the loss was s somehow “less”.

The volunteers hope this digital memorial would help depict geographies, communities and demographics who were most affected by the state response to the pandemic.

“For those who are left behind, these are beloved family members, and each loss is felt very deeply. We hope this memorial serves to remind people that this loss is more than the statistics.”

Putting together the website had proved to be a Herculean task. The team had initially thought of matching the daily death count recorded by the Our World in Data: COVID-19 Data Explorer against the deaths recorded in the press releases by the Department of Government Information. However, when recording the data, they had found discrepancies. Most of the data had also been presented in image files, so they had to read through these images and manually enter the data.

“The quantitative number of deaths for a certain date would be different to the more qualitative data gathered from several press releases. For example, the total number of deaths recorded for 14 March 2021 is just one but as we went through press releases, we found three more deaths that happened on the same date, bringing the total to four instead of one,” explained De Sayrah and Perera.

“This is definitely something that requires more attention and investigation by journalists and anyone else, to call for more transparency in how the government is handling this data and also to find out if these are merely administrative lags or if there are discrepancies,” they added. (Colombo/Oct08/2021)


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