The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, which began in early 2020, continues to impact the lives of people and communities globally. Throughout the course of the pandemic, we have witnessed many governments struggle to combat and find suitable resolutions to the evolving challenges that have arisen because of the pandemic.
On the global stage, we have seen countries deal with the pandemic in a variety of ways from the early success of New Zealand’s zero-local transmissions, to the tragic super waves that hit Italy and many other countries. From issues surrounding the distribution of life-saving supplies to dealing with an influx of COVID-19 fatalities, we have seen countries rise above the adversities and some fail dismally to mitigate health and social issues.
But arguably one of the most globally criticised responses to the pandemic has been the systemic failure of the Sri Lankan government to respect the rights of minority groups during these devastating times. The implementation of a rigid cremation-only policy with regards to COVID-19 fatalities was introduced in March this year to national and global outcry from many communities and ultimately is a policy that disregards guidelines set out by the World Health Organisation (WHO) which allows for both burial and cremation.
Cremations are forbidden in Islam and generally not preferred in either Judaism or Christianity, with all three major religions practicing sacred funeral rites that have been respected by governments and democracies. It was to a response of shock and horror when it was revealed that the body of the first Muslim COVID-19 victim, who had died on 30 March 2020, was cremated by the authorities without the family’s consent and in total violation of both the WHO guidelines as well as against the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health guidelines.
In response to this gross violation of consent, The Ministry of Health abruptly retracted its previous guidelines and published a fresh set of guidelines with a particular emphasis on the uncompromising provision of cremation (and not burial) of bodies of persons who had (or suspected to have) died of COVID-19.
Despite over 185 countries allowing the burial of bodies and granting religious last rites, Sri Lanka is among the handful of countries that have mandated cremation. The mandates were made official in April amid fears spread by influential Buddhist monks – who support President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – that burying bodies could contaminate groundwater and spread the disease, with the government’s chief epidemiologist, Dr Sugath Samaraweera, also backing the unproven claims.
The Government of Sri Lanka formed an expert committee to study and report on the best solution to the issue of observing funeral rites, which ultimately reaffirmed the government’s initial claims. However, interviews with professionals competent in Virology, Epidemiology and Geology have consistently negated the pseudo claims and there has been no scientific evidence that proves the occurrence of such contamination.
Religious groups in Sri Lanka and across the world have continued to protest the policy, with 12 separate petitions filed to the Sri Lankan Supreme Court.
All 12 petitions were rejected with no comment.
Despite the widespread criticism from many religious groups, the ongoing cremations have left many communities in Sri Lanka fearful of self reporting COVID-19 symptoms, with some families refusing to identify bodies of victims in the hopes of delaying cremation. The demands for families to pay the costly fees attributed to cremation are also often beyond the financial capacity of Sri Lanka’s lower classes, putting extra strain on those who are already suffering.
Up to 19 bodies, all Muslims, have since been left unclaimed in the Colombo City morgue prompting the Attorney General Dappula de Livera to issue an edict for their cremation.
“Bodies of COVID-19 victims not claimed by families can be cremated in terms of quarantine regulations,” De Livera’s spokeswoman said.
The issue of cremation of Muslim COVID-19 fatalities has received immense publicity nationally, via social media, and in parliamentary deliberations. It’s not only the Muslims but also the Buddhists, Hindus and Christians who are voicing their concerns in parliamentary proceedings about the injustice done to the Muslims and the Christians by refusing a decent burial of COVID-19 victims.