When your country is doing something totally different from what the rest of the world does, literally in exact opposition to the common sense practised and adopted by 194 countries in the world, things aren’t just right.
That is what the government should reckon of its flawed policy of compulsory cremation of dead bodies of Muslims. According to the religious belief of Muslims, the burning of the dead is tantamount to desecration. And the rest of the world has taken note of it and made allowances. The World Health Organisation (WHO) also permits both cremation and burial for the disposal of Covid-19 related death bodies.
Whereas the Government of SriLanka has defended its policy on the basis of scientific advice by an expert committee, but this isn’t science. This is demagoguery.
During the early stage of the Covid -19 pandemic, when the first deaths were reported in March, there existed a degree of uncertainty on the proper way of doing the last rites. The initial health ministry guidelines allowed for both cremation and burial, but the cremation was favoured as the safer way. Then, when the first Muslim died on March 31, the victim’s family insisted on burial. Instead of reaching out for wider discourse, the Ministry of Health issued a circular- Ministry of Health (MOH) Circular No. EPID/400/2019 n-cov on 1 April 2020, which required that all COVID-19 victims be cremated.
Since then, despite the initial success of the battle against Covid-19, Sri Lanka had made headlines for the wrong reasons, caused further distress for the family members of Covid victims, and contributed to the alienation of the Muslim community.
The policy is defended on the grounds of the supposedly unique topography of Sri Lanka. Given low groundwater tables and high humidity, it was argued that the virus in the cadavers would pollute the water sources.
“We experience high rainfall, low groundwater table, highly porous subsurface soil, and fractured rocks compared to most temperate countries in the world, which may lead the transport of biological and chemical compounds from dead bodies.” Writes Prof. MeththikaVithanage, one of the members of the expert panel appointed by the Ministry of Health.
However, the evidence on the matter is limited and contested.
The WHO, in its updated interim guidance on “water, sanitation, hygiene, and waste management for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19” observes: “While the presence of SARS-CoV-2 us in untreated drinking water is possible, infectious virus has not been detected in drinking-water supplies. There is at least one documented instance of detecting RNA fragments of SARS-CoV-2 in a river, during the peak of the epidemic in northern Italy. It is suspected the river was affected by raw, untreated sewage. Other Coronaviruses have not been detected in surface or groundwater sources and thus the risk Coronaviruses pose to drinking-water supplies is low. Within waste water, infectious SARS-CoV-2 has not been detected in untreated or treated sewage.”
It also notes “Though little evidence is available, some data suggest that transmission via faeces, is possible but unlikely, especially where faeces become aerosolized.”
Also, the WHO in its interim guidelines on the safe management of a dead body in the covid-19 context observed: “Except in cases of haemorrhagic fevers (such as Ebola, Marburg) and cholera, dead bodies are generally not infectious. Only the lungs of patients with pandemic influenza, if handled improperly during an autopsy, can be infectious. Otherwise,cadavers do not transmit disease. 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”
Thus the problem is not exactly about science, it is how findings are filtered by the Sri Lankan government and its advisors, feeding off from and feeding into a racially charged environment.
Contingencies and the human response to them are also a test of fundamental values of humanity. The covid-19 itself entails trade offs between two imperatives of human decency and risk management. As much as the virus is a medical contingency, how the states respond to it is a matter of human decency, ethics and fair play. Not unduly victimising a portion of its people, and not straining their fundamental values, are important for the long- term endurance of nations. This is where Sri Lanka has lost out.
This failure in the civilised exercise is as tragic and alarming as Covid 19 is. Worse still because you expect the intelligentsia of the country to be a beacon of reason, justice and fair play. That also entails a common-sense to pick the right trade-off where complex choices are involved ( though one doubts whether this even falls in that category, for what is right being pretty straight forward)
This general sense of backwardness is amplified when the saner voices of professors, specialist doctors and other professionals fail to speak up. There will be long term consequences on the stock of intellectual capital and recognition by the peers.
One should not delude him or herself to think this whole saga stems from science. It is not. This draws from a growing reservoir of Islamaphobia in the country. This government relied on borderline racism to mobilize a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist vote during the election. Thus, dangerously and disturbingly a good deal of Islamophobia is being made into the mainstream. Scientific pundits are feeding into these sentiments, and the government that wants to provide a sense of relief to Muslims ( presumably after a group of pole vaulter Muslim MPs voted for the 20th Amendment, now find it hard to turn back on its nationalist audience. Now, more than the doctors, it is the monks and the usual culprits of the nationalist bandwagon who are vocal against the review of funeral arrangements.
The media earlier reported that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had instructed the authorities to find a burial place in a dry land. (That if he can do so, it is a vindication of the hollowness of the scientific basis of the government policy is a different story.) However, he walked back on the instruction. Now the government is awaiting a report by an expert committee which would reportedly take two more months.
Sri Lanka’s compulsory cremation of Covid-19 related dead bodies is not a case of extra-caution or science. It is proof of scientific ignorance, callousness and an overwhelming lack of enlightenment.
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