Anger over forced cremation of Covid-19 victims in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka had mandated cremation as the only method of disposal for Covid-19 related deaths in April, but it caused concerns among the country's Muslims. PHOTO: AFP

BANGALORE - Muslim families in Sri Lanka are refusing to collect the bodies of their relatives who died of Covid-19, in protest against the government enforcing cremations.

A government health officer in the capital city of Colombo told The Straits Times that in the past 10 days, 19 bodies have been left unclaimed in the Colombo morgue as Muslim families demand the right to bury them as per Islamic rites.

The Sri Lankan government issued a gazette notification in April mandating cremation as the only method of disposal for all Covid-19-related deaths. The new rule set off concerns among the country's Muslims, who make up 10 per cent of Sri Lanka's 21 million population.

When Mr Mohamed's 70-year-old father died in his sleep on Nov 29 in their home in the capital city of Colombo, the 28-year-old ribbon trader said prayers with his mother and rushed his father's body to the hospital. Tests of the dead man found him positive for the coronavirus.

For the past 10 days, as the family has refused to pay for the coffin and cremation, the body remains in the morgue.

Now in an army-run quarantine centre in the eastern town of Trincomalee, Mr Mohamed, who gave only his first name fearing repercussions, said: "It pains me to leave my father's body like this, but what can I do? In Islam, we believe that a person goes to hell if not properly buried.

"My father's nickname in our area was Poonai (pussycat) because he was so soft-spoken, worked quietly and avoided conflict. I cannot imagine his body in flames," he added.

The World Health Organisation's March guidelines say victims of coronavirus "can be buried or cremated". But the Sri Lankan government's chief epidemiologist Dr Sugath Samaraweera told the media that an expert committee warned them about the island's high water table, and that burials could contaminate ground water.

Twelve petitions from civil society and Muslim and Catholic families challenged the cremation rule in the Supreme Court, demanding evidence for the claims about burials contaminating groundwater. Members of the families involved said they were traumatised by the government denying them their religious burial rights.

On Dec 1, the court dismissed all the petitions.

"Why is Sri Lanka the only country in the world to force us to cremate the dead?" asked one of the petitioners, shipping manager Fayaz Joonus, 48.

His father BHM Joonus had died on April 1, a day after the cremation notification was issued. When health authorities found the 73-year-old positive for Covid-19, the family had to buy a coffin for cremation and pay the expenses.

"It was a painful and sad experience. We Muslims consider cremation a violation of the human body," said Mr Fayas.

His father was the third Sri Lankan and the second Muslim to die of Covid-19. Since then, the country has had almost 30,000 cases of Covid-19 and 142 have died, including at least 55 Muslims.

The authorities require even those suspected of having died of Covid-19 to be cremated.

Mr Naushad Rafaideen said his father had died of chest pain at their Colombo home on May 5, but the hospital insisted he be cremated, calling it a suspected Covid-19 case.

"If we insisted on burying him, the doctors said we would be responsible for other people getting infected by the virus. I was scared and already grieving my father, so I gave in," Mr Naushad said.

When tests finally showed that his father did not have Covid-19, Mr Naushad filed a petition in court alleging "wrongful cremation".

"But the court threw the case out. My heart hurts that others will go on and on suffering now. Is there no solution for this?" he asked.

In a letter to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, the United Nations' Resident Coordinator in Colombo Hanaa Singer urged the Sri Lankan government to review its guidelines.

"The common assumption that people who died of a communicable disease should be cremated to prevent spread is not supported by evidence. Instead, cremation is a matter of cultural choice and available resources," Ms Singer wrote.

Since the end of the 30-year-long civil war in 2009, the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka has faced assaults and violence from fundamentalist Sinhalese Buddhist groups that have a growing influence on the government.

"We strongly feel it is part of the Sri Lankan government's institutionalised policy of Islamophobia and racism," said Colombo-based human rights activist Shreen Saroor, who had also filed a petition against forcible cremations.

Civil society activist Ruki Fernando pointed out that the blanket rule was proving "an obstruction to justice" as well.

In the Nov 29 riot that broke out in the Mahara jail on the outskirts of Colombo due to anxieties about overcrowding and coronavirus transmission, 11 inmates were killed. Eight of them reportedly had Covid-19.

"If their bodies are cremated, citing Covid, we fear that it will cover up accountability for suspected murder by the police," said Mr Fernando.

The government doctor, who did not want to be named, said they faced "a dilemma" now, as the rising number of unclaimed bodies in the morgue presented "a health risk".

"Families are not paying for cremation, and the law doesn't say that the government can pay the expenses. All departments are passing the buck," he said.

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