By Rajan Philips –
To burn or to bury? That has become the bedeviling Covid-19 question in Sri Lanka with no respect for the dead and no empathy for those who are left to mourn. According to WHO guidelines, Covid-19 victim’s bodies are not infectious, unless other complications are involved – such as hemorrhagic fevers (Ebola, Marburg) or cholera. In general, dead bodies themselves are not infectious, but body fluids are and they secrete even after death. So, there is universal insistence on and compliance with the protocols for handing dead bodies, not only by funeral workers but also by families. But the question, whether cremation or burial, is a redundant question and it has been unnecessarily overwrought. But only in Sri Lanka, and chiefly by the government itself.
For perspective, there have been public protests against cremating Covid-19 victims in Kerala and in West Bengal. So, one can argue either way if being argumentative is the be all and end all of patriotism. To their credit, the Indian federal and state governments have allowed both cremation and burial, leaving it to the family but with all hazmat protocols and precautions.
In Sri Lanka, it gets ridiculous. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has apparently asked the Maldivian government if Maldives could help by providing burial funerals for Sri Lankan Muslims who die from Covid-19 infection. That would be a first for any country. Already four UN Special Rapporteurs, not counting the ones at UNHRC, have called on Sri Lanka not to ban Muslim burials but allow them in accordance with WHO guidelines. Is Sri Lanka on course to run afoul of every UN Rapporteur? And why?
The fear mongering, not the prudent concern, about groundwater contamination is another fallopian nonsense. As with Caesarian sterilization, as with the Millennium Compact (which the US has now revoked), the government has dug itself another hole while banning graves for Covid-19 victims. If it is feared that graves will contaminate groundwater, it is fair to ask, what about contamination from sceptic tanks? Sanitary flows, landfill leachate, open defecation are potential pathogen carriers, but not necessarily of the coronavirus. Are drones going to be flown around to catch people answering the nature’s call in the most natural way?
Whether burial or cremation, there are safety protocols to be followed even in normal circumstances. There should be a sense of proportion. If a thousand non-infected, non-Covid-19, bodies are cremated at one location, over one week, and not far from a residential area, no one is going to be amused. In fact, there will be hellish fury. Even a hundred bodies will cause concerns, petitions, and protests. Similarly, if a thousand bodies are buried in a very short period, in a small cemetery, and close to wells or surface waterbodies, that would be a matter for grave concern. No one is talking about mass burials or mass cremations in Sri Lanka. The numbers are small, but the shouting is deafening.
Until late October, even while the burial debate was already in full flames, the total number of Covid-19 deaths was still under 20. Even if all of them were buried in one cemetery, that should not have been a matter for concern. The current death total is 160 and rising. But not all of Covid-19 victims are Muslims, or Christians, requiring a burial. They are a minority in life, in Sri Lanka, and so in death. And not all burials are going to be at the same location. In fact, it will not be a good idea to select a central location for all burials. So, if burials are allowed to take place the way they have been for centuries, the sky will not fall and the ground water is not going to be poisoned.
Proportionality and risk assessment are among the key considerations that guide the selection and location of public facilities, and that includes cemeteries and crematoriums. While cemeteries and crematoriums serve a spiritual purpose, their operations and maintenance come under more mundane considerations like public safety and environmental protection.
The Environmental Agency in England has addressed these matters in the context of Covid-19 and the potential risks from increased burials. Notably, the agency has waived the normal permit requirement for local authorities or cemetery operators undertaking new cemetery development or expanding existing cemeteries to accommodate the increased burials during Covid19. It has only provided guidelines for addressing groundwater risks for new cemeteries, but risks due to the increased number of burials, not due to Covid-19. The Agency is not concerned about Covid-19 infection in burials, but only the number of burials relative to their locations.
England alone has had over 57,000 people die due to Covid-19 so far, and the vast majority of them have been buried. Sri Lanka’s death toll is 160, and a majority of them are cremated. What higher risk would Sri Lanka face by allowing a few dozens of Covid-19 burials at most, than what England and all other countries allowing vastly larger number of burials are facing and dealing with? How did Sri Lanka, and this government particularly, get into such a grave hole, while protesting burials?
A cabal government?
According to the National People’s Power (NPP) MP Dr Harini Amarasuriya, “a cabal of state officials and their close associates in the business community have been making important government decisions bypassing the prime minister and the cabinet of ministers.” This has been evident for quite some time, and what is also clear is that there is more than one cabal, and that the cabals have got the ear of the President and isolated him from everyone else – including cabinet of ministers (which is not saying much), even the Rajapaksa family, and most of all its political godfather – the Prime Minister himself.
The cabals are not limited to state officials and business eople, and include professionals who use their trade union muscle to compensate for their professional inadequacies. The GMOA is the most notorious villain of the piece, but it may not be the only one. In the upshot, the government is unnecessarily complicating matters more than what they already are and they may invariably have to be. The government has become its own arsonist, setting up more fires without putting down any. And letting crisis after crisis to crop up with no end in sight. The burn or bury question is one such crisis. Avoidable and unnecessary.
The latest manifestations of this cabal power are the ultra vires sacking of the national Medical Council, a statutory body established in 1926, and the upcoming electrocution of the Public Utilities Commission, another statutory body . Before these was the eruption out of nowhere of prison riots which were ministerially attributed to hidden hands; but there are no hidden hands, only the government’s bloodied hands. And in the most bizarre topping to this cabal state of governance, three government ministers, two of them medical professionals, have been publicly partaking in homemade potions of a purportedly Covid-19 vaccine or cure. All of this and more in the middle of a global pandemic and economic shutdowns.
Not surprisingly, the economy shrank by a whopping 16.3% in Q-2 of 2020, recovering to grow by 1.5% in Q-3, and contracting overall by 5.3% for the first nine months. Hardly the situation for making rosy projections for 2021. And Covid-19 is not letting up at all. It keeps its infections climbing with apparent vengeance after lying low, or undetected, till early October. Infections and deaths have since multiplied ten times and are at the fearsome inflection point for a potentially exponential breakout. This is not a call for panic, but for signs that the government understands what the stakes are and what it takes to get things under control. The signs are anything but!