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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Civil Society statement: Disposal of bodies of deceased persons who were infected with and suspected of being infected with COVID-19

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Image: None of Ismail’s household could attend the funeral. He was buried at Kemnal Park Cemetery in Chislehurst, south east London.  ( photo courtesy of news.sky.com/)

“When we face such a grave public health crisis there is a need to ensure that the mental health of our population is also given due attention. In this regard, the disposal of bodies of persons who died during the pandemic requires particular attention. In the Muslim faith it is required that the dead be buried and cremation is not permitted. The possibility of compulsory cremation, therefore, is a matter of great distress to practicing Muslims. In these times of distress and uncertainty this is an added stressor that may adversely impact the mental health of large numbers in the population.”  emphasis joint civil society statement address to president Rajapaksa.

H.E. Gotabaya Rajapaksa, President of the Democratic, Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka

CC:Hon. Pavithra Waniarachchi, Minister of Health

Dr. Anil Jasinghe, Director General Health Services

Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, Chief Epidemiologist, Epidemiology Unit

Dr. Hasitha Attanayake, Director, Infectious Diseases Hospital

Dr. Ajith Tennakoon, Chief Judicial Medical Officer

Dr. Deepika Udagama, Chairperson, Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka

Dr. Razia Pendse, WHO Representative to Sri Lanka.

Your Excellency,

Disposal of bodies of deceased persons who were infected with and suspected of being infected with COVID-19

We write to you as the person leading Sri Lanka’s effort to prevent and deal with COVID-19.

We, at the outset, would like to express our gratitude to the public officials in Sri Lanka for their contribution towards preventing and dealing with COVID-19, particularly the untiring and selfless service of health sector workers.

We write with regard to the disposal of bodies of persons who died due to being infected with, and those that died who are suspected of being infected with COVID-19. We were pleased that the Ministry of Health Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID 19 Suspected and Confirmed Patients dated 27 March 2020 allowed for burial under certain conditions, and the family of the deceased to view the body at a designated place at the hospital. We were however concerned to learn that an individual of the Muslim faith who died due to COVID-19 was cremated on 30 March 2020 in contravention of the said Ministry of Health Guidelines and against the wishes of the family.

We note that the Ministry of Health Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID 19 Suspected and Confirmed Patients were thereafter amended and the new document dated 31 March 2020 as well as the Ministry of Health (MOH) Circular no EPID/400/2019 n-cov issued on 1 April 2020, which reproduces the amended Guidelines, require that all COVID-19 victims be cremated. We also note contradictory media reports on 2 April 2020 that Cabinet Spokesperson Bandula Gunawardena has stated that the government will adhere to WHO Guidelines in disposing the bodies of those who have died as a result of COVID- 19, as well as the appointment of an expert committee to decide on appropriate and practices to deal with the bodies of those who die due to COVOD-19.

When we face such a grave public health crisis there is a need to ensure that the mental health of our population is also given due attention. In this regard, the disposal of bodies of persons who died during the pandemic requires particular attention. In the Muslim faith it is required that the dead be buried and cremation is not permitted. The possibility of compulsory cremation therefore is a matter of great distress to practicing Muslims. In these times of distress and uncertainty this is an added stressor that may adversely impact the mental health of large numbers in the population.

At present, the religious identity of certain victims has been highlighted due to which, in both mainstream and social media, we have seen outpourings of vitriol, and hate speech against Muslims for their actions or inactions in not preventing or causing the spread of COVID-19. In this context, it is important that the decisions made regarding burial are not perceived as punitive measures against such perceived irresponsibility by infected persons. We must also recognize that there is widespread anti Muslim sentiment prevailing in Sri Lanka and has been for the past several years. The negative stereotypes about Muslims were exacerbated by the terror attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019 carried out by an ISIS inspired group of Muslims. It is important to ensure that decisions regarding matters of public health do not result in the persecution or marginalization of the Muslim population. Within such a context, we note with concern that the revised MOH Guidelines dated 31 March 2020 and the aforementioned MOH Circular disregard Muslim religious sensibilities and requirements, and provide no succor to the already distressed.

In this regard, we urge you to consider the WHO Interim Guidance dated 24 March 2020 on Infection Prevention and Control for the Safe Management of a Dead Body in the Context of COVID-19. The Guidance states that ‘cadavers do not transmit disease’ and that ‘It is a common myth that persons who have died of a communicable disease should be cremated, but this is not true. Cremation is a matter of cultural choice and available resources’. The Guidance further advises the authorities to ‘manage each situation on a case-by-case basis, balancing the rights of the family, the need to investigate the cause of death, and the risks of exposure to infection’. Where disposal is concerned, the Guidance says that ‘People who have died from COVID-19 can be buried or cremated’. We recognize that the option of burial might not be available in certain instances due to legitimate public health requirements such as the depth of graves. To address these concerns, the state could identify suitable burial grounds that meet WHO standards in all districts and request the particular community religious authorities to prepare themselves to adhere to those standards.

In seeking to ensure the well-being of all Sri Lankans at this difficult time, we highlight the need to also ensure dignity in death. In addition to the issue of Muslim and perhaps Christian burials, we have witnessed that the media is permitted to cover the cremation of those who died from COVID-19 without any consideration of the wishes of the bereaved families. While preserving the health of our population must be paramount, it must not be at the cost of our common humanity and the dignity of our dead. WHO guidelines state that, ‘The dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout’.

Moreover, to encourage persons to report possible exposure and seek medical advice and help, we highlight the need to not stigmatize patients or criminalize them in any way, which will only lead to persons hiding their symptoms and further infecting others. It is also important to ensure there is public information in all three languages regarding the behavior required under different circumstances as well as regarding the available medical care. The availability of such information will reassure the general population that being infected with COVID-19 is not a death sentence.

We therefore urge you to reconsider the MOH Circular of 1st April 2020 and amendments dated 31 March 2020 to the MOH Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines, and instead follow WHO Guidance on the disposal of bodies. We also call upon your Excellency to address the country’s greatly distressed Muslims and put to rest their fears that they are somehow being punished, or that the country has little respect for their concerns.

THE LIST OF SIGNATORIES

  1. Dr. Asha Abeysekere
  2. Hilmy Ahamed
  3. Silma Ahamed
  4. Azhar Ahamed
  5. Nihal Ahamed
  6. Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare
  7. K. Aingkaran, Attorney-at-law
  8. Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, Open University Of Sri Lanka
  9. S.M. Aneefa
  10. N. Abdul
  11. Faaiz, Ameer , Attorney-at-law
  12. Prof. Ameer Ali
  13. Swathika Arulingam, Attorney at law
  14. Niranjala Arulanathy 
  15. Subajini Kisho Anton, Attorney at law
  16. M.M. Baheej, Attorney-at-law
  17. Capt. A.G.A. Barrie, SLE, P.Eng.
  18. Jiffriya Barrie
  19. Faahima Cadar 
  20. Angelica Chandrasekeran
  21. Anushya Coomaraswamy
  22. Radhika Coomaraswamy
  23. C. Colombage
  24. Danesh Cassie Chetty
  25. Shalomi Daniel
  26. Amalini De Sayrah 
  27. Bishop Duleep de Chickera
  28. Geetha de Chickera
  29. Marisa De Silva
  30. Shaanea Mendis de Silva, Artist
  31. Dinesh Dogangoda, Attorney-at-law
  32. Prabu Deepan
  33. K.M.Deen, All Ceylon YMMA Conference
  34. Dinushika Dissanayake
  35. Asma Edris
  36. S.C.C. Elankovan
  37. Sarala Emmauel
  38. Rev. Sister Nicola Emmanuel.
  39. Mohamed Faslan, University of Colombo
  40. Rashika Fazali
  41. Ilma Fareez
  42. Latheef Farook, Journalist
  43. Rizvi Farouk
  44. Khalid Farouk
  45. Ian Ferdinands
  46. Dr. Kaushalya Fernando
  47. Dr. Nimalka Fernando, Attorney-at-law
  48. Ruki Fernando
  49. Tamara Fernando
  50. Rev. Reid Shelton Fernando, Retired Priest, Colombo
  51. Angela Forman
  52. Bhavani Fonseka
  53. Manel Fonseka
  54. Mushtaq Fuad
  55. Aneesa Firthous
  56. C. Ranitha Gnanarajah Attorney -at law
  57. Shyamala Gomez
  58. Dr. Mario Gomez
  59. Gehan Gunetilleke
  60. Prof. Camena Guneratna
  61. Harsha Gunasena
  62. Anberiya Hanifa, Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum
  63. Dr. Farzana Haniffa, University Of Colombo
  64. Sa’diya Hassen
  65. Adel Hashim
  66. Prof. Rajan Hoole
  67. Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole
  68. Prof. Qadri Ismail
  69. Zumaiya Ifthikar
  70. Fathima Nabeela Iqbal
  71. Ashraff Jainudeen
  72. U.L. Jaufer, Attorney-at-law
  73. Dr. Sivagnanam Jeyasankar 
  74. Sr. Victorine James, Holy Cross School of health Sciences Jaffna
  75. Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar, University Of Jaffna
  76. Niyanthini Kadirgamar
  77. Sakuntala Kadirgamar
  78. Dr. Ramya Kumar
  79. Chulani Kodikara
  80. Mohamed Kubais
  81. Mahaluxmy Kurushanthan
  82. Annie Kurian
  83. Jayanthi Kuru-Utumpala
  84. Shaheera Lafeer 
  85. Jeremy Liyanage, Bridging Lanka Ltd.
  86. Ismath Majeed.
  87. Jensila Majeed
  88. Justice. Dr. Saleem Marsoof
  89. Izath Manal
  90. Mohamed Mahuruf
  91. M. Meera Saibu
  92. Dr. Farah Mihlar
  93. Juwairia Mohideen
  94. Buhari Mohamed
  95. Nawaz Mohamed, Former Working Director, SLRC
  96. F. Muflik
  97. F. Z. Nasrullah
  98. Nagulan Nesiah
  99. Devanesan Nesiah, Retired Secretary, Ministry of Transport, Environment and Women’s Affairs
  100. Prof. Vasuki Nesiah, New York University
  101. S.M.A. Niyas
  102. M.N.M. Nowras
  103. Prof. Arjuna Parakrama, University Of Peradeniya
  104. Nicola Perera, University Of Colombo.
  105. Dylan Perera
  106. Anna Peter
  107. Dr. Jehan Perera, National Peace Council
  108. Srinath Perera, Attorney-at-aw, United Socialist Party
  109. Rev. Dr. Jayasiri Peiris, Church of Ceylon
  110. Fathima Rameeza 
  111. Nalini Ratnaraja
  112. K.S. Ratnavel, Attorney-at-law
  113. Dr. Ramola Rasool, University Of Kelaniya
  114. Prof. Harshana Rambukwella, Open University Of Sri Lanka
  115. A.R.A. Ramees
  116. Y.R. Ranjan
  117. Sheila Richards
  118. Ahamed Rislan
  119. Yasmin Raji
  120. R. Rasmin
  121. Peter Rezel – Chartered Accountant
  122. Amna Rifky
  123. Thyagi Ruwanpathirana
  124. Afrah Sidiqi
  125. Vanie Simon
  126. Prof. Sivamohan Sumathy, University Of Peradeniya
  127. Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe, University Of Colombo.
  128. Sampath Samarakoon
  129. Rev. Selvanathan Selvan
  130. M.N Shamla
  131. Shaheed Sangani
  132. Ambika Satkunanathan
  133. S.Sivathasan
  134. Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu
  135. Dr. Seyed Sheriffdeen
  136. Sharmila Seyyid, Social Worker
  137. Revd. S .D .P. Selvan
  138. N.M. Saroor
  139. Joanne Senn
  140. Shreen Abdul Saroor
  141. Krishanthi Tharmaraj 
  142. Mahendran Thiruvarangan, Lecturer (Probationary), University of Jaffna
  143. Dr. Minna Thaheer, Senior Researcher, Centre for Poverty Analysis
  144. Azkha Thariqshad
  145. Fathima Nusra Thameem
  146. Mathuri Thamilmaran – Attorney at Law
  147. Visakha Tillekeratne, Chief Commissioner, Sri Lanka Girl Guides Association
  148. Hafsa Uvais.
  149. Mass Usuf, Attorney-at-law
  150. S. Vinothan
  151. Kamala Vasuki
  152. Emil van der Poorten
  153. Stella Victor 
  154. Piyumi Wattuhewa
  155. Shamara Wettimuny
  156. Lal Wijenayake, Attorney-at-law
  157. M. Wahid
  158. Varuni Weerasinghe
  159. Annouchka Wijesinghe
  160. Upul Kumara Wickramasinghe – Durham University
  161. Riza Yahiya, Architect
  162. Deshamanya Godfrey Yogarajah
  163. Fr. V. Yogeswaran
  164. S.A.C.M. Zuhyle

Organisations:

  1. Sisterhood Initiatives
  2. National Peace Council
  3. Northern Muslim Civil Society
  4. INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre
  5. Rural Development Foundation
  6. International Institute for Research, Information and Action (IIRIA)
  7. Mannar Women’s Development Center
  8. Women’s Action Network
  9. Muslim Women Development Trust
  10. International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES)
  11. Centre for Policy Alternative
  12. Human Elevation Organization
  13. Islamic Women’s Association for Research and Empowerment
  14. Centre for Justice and Change, Trincomalee
  15. Centre for Human Rights and Development
  16. Eastern Social Development  Foundation
  17. Law and Human Rights Center, Jaffna.
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