Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, heart wrenching incidents coming from across the country are not only making headlines but also speaking the dolorous tales of human sufferings and our helplessness in ensuring dignity to our loved ones after death.
The devastating second wave of Covid-19 has completely shattered our lives. And distress, despair and deaths are all around. It has not only snatched away our dignity to live but also the dignity after the death. When you lose your loved one to the deadly Covid-19, it is itself a tragic enough but what is even more heartrending is that the grieving family is not able to give the dead a dignified farewell. Who else would be able to express this trauma more than Binodini Barik of Odisha, who had to spend 12 hours with the body of her father along with her ailing old mother at home as nobody came forward to help her take the body to the cremation ground.
Binodini Barik, 45, of Ghanamal village of Padmapur subdivision in Bargarh district lost her father Satyananda Sahu ,76, to Covid -19 on April 20, 2021. Just 10 days ago, Binodidni’ s younger brother Jugal Kishor Sahu, 40, a software engineer also passed away due to Covid. When her father breathed his last at home, Binodini and her mother were also suffering from Covid-19. No one there at home to help them take out the body for cremation.
“It was a nightmare for me, felt so helpless, I never ever felt like this. I pleaded every one for help but no one came to help us. I contacted the ambulance, our local Sarpanch and our villagers but none of them turned up. My father’s ‘body was lying on a cot and my ailing mother and I spent almost 12 hours with his body hoping to get some help to take him to the cremation ground. I was clueless what to do. My father was a teacher. He has shaped thousands of life in his career. Did he deserve this after death?” Binodini busted into tears.
Somehow one NGO name Snkalpa Paribar and the member of the Western Odisha Yuba Manch at Bargarh district got the news and reached the spot for her rescue.
A similar tragic situation was seen at Badimal village in Khaliapali panchayat of Padmapur sub-division where four minor girls had to dig a hole and buried the body of their father Mangalu Kanda. Though Manglu Kanda was died of diarrhoea, neither the villagers nor the administration helped the girls cremate the body due to Corona fear.
Gloomy Tales of the Graveyard
The death toll in the country has rose to 270,284 according to the Union Health Ministry data updated on Sunday. In Odisha, the total Covid death toll has touched 2294 of which 400 were in second wave. The misery has never ended even after the body reached to the graveyard. Somewhere families and their relatives have to wait in a long queue for getting a place in the cremation ground while in many places half burnt bodies are found in graveyards, which reflect volumes of our insensitivity towards providing dignity to the deceased. Cases reported from Bolangir and Bargarh districts of Odisha, where half burnt body was left in the grave yard, on by dogs and crows.
Nilamani Tripathy, a resident of Bolangir, lost his loved one and after the death when he came to collect the remains from the ashes as a part of the Hindu rituals, he was shocked to see that there were so many bodies left half burnt and scattered here and there. “It is really a heartbreaking, plaintive movement for us with high degree of vulnerability never ever faced in our life. I would request to the district administration and concerned authority to show at least minimum sensitivity and ensure the dignity of the dead while disposing of the body,” Tripathy appealed with a brimming eye.
Violation of Human Rights
Seema Samridhi Kuswaha, a Supreme Court lawyer explains, “Under Article 21 of the constitution, the fundamental right to life and personal guaranteed has been given and expanded meaning by judicial pronouncements. The right to life has been held to include the right to live with human dignity. By our tradition and culture, the same human dignity (if not more) with which a living being is expected to be treated, should also be extended to a person who is dead. The right to accord a decent burial or cremation to the body of a person should be taken to be part of the right such as human dignity”.
“When I see bodies floating on the bank of the river, bodies are not being cremated properly, it is definitely the violation of human right and it shows that somewhere our system gets failed. It is the responsibility of the state and the central government to protect the fundamental right of the people and ensure their dignity after death as well,” she added.
On 14th of May 2021, the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC, India, issued an Advisory to the Centre and States asking them protecting the dignity and the rights of the dead. Soon after the NHRC advisory, the central government directed the states to ensure the same.
Covid Guidelines for Last Rites
Once a Covid-19 patient succumbs, the medical professionals should put the body preferably in a fluid proof coffin, so that there will be no chance of infection and if the family of the patient wishes to view the body at the time of removal from the isolation room or area, they may be allowed to do so with precautions. The body will be either handed over to the relatives or taken to a mortuary.
The relatives and handling staff should be appropriately dressed in PPE i.e. gloves, water resistant gown/plastic apron over water repellent gown, and surgical mask along with face shield to protect eyes from any splashes must be used.
For the purpose of last rites, cremation should be preferred for complete elimination of chances of infection in either electric or gas crematorium in zipped body bag. In case of a burial, it should be assured that the body is buried in a thick, air tight coffin and placed at normal depth of burial (4 to 6 feet). It is recommended that the area above and adjacent to the grave should be cemented immediately. The family and relatives can see the face of the deceased for last time.
Religious rituals such as reading from religious scripts, sprinkling holy water and any other last rites can be allowed without touching the body maintaining the Covid guidelines with the PPE kit.
The Odisha government however has made a provision of Rs 7,500 for handling and disposal of bodies of those who succumb to COVID-19. Despite these guidelines, the graveyards of the states itself speaks the violation of the guidelines and human rights as well.
Trauma-Led Serious Mental Health Issues are Ahead
Every individual and community is being affected by a crisis and a disaster, which disrupts their mental health and well-being. The mental health experts apprehend that this Corona crisis / Pandemic may also left its impact on the mental health of the individual.
Veer Singh, a resident of Bhangwar Panchayat of Ranital, Himachal Pradesh has a Covid related traumatic experience to share. His mother died of Covid a couple of days ago. Due to Corona fear, no one came forward to shoulder her body to the cremation ground. Left with no other option, Veer Singh all alone raised the body on his shoulder and took it to the cremation ground to perform last rite.
“My Mother does not deserve this. I was helpless; still feel guilty. Why this happened to my mother. I could not come out from my guilt that being a son I cannot ensure her dignity after death,” he virtually cried while narrating his experience.
“It's been a more than one week and the image is still stuck in one corner of my head. Refusing to go away, it is shaking me out of my sleep at nights. On Thursday, I lost my brother-in-law. And it's not the death that has affected me as much as the indignity, the humiliation a human being had to go through in his last hours. I and my sister watched him die on the floor of the emergency of a sarkari hospital back in Aligarh. I literally dragged his seemingly lifeless body from the floor on to the mat. He stopped breathing. No human deserves to die like this. Panting, rubbing heels against the hospital floor. No person deserves to watch their loved ones die like this in sheer helplessness,” a Delhi based independent journalist Mohd Asim wrote his trauma in his face book post.
“The hospital refused a hearse van because he was not admitted there. A cousin had arrived by then. We literally had to drag his body outside the emergency, put on a stretcher and shove it at the back of an ambulance. Those images of hands flinging out of the stretcher, head dangling, his body being denied dignity in death refuse to go away. Amid this entire trauma, I couldn't find a moment to hug and console my crying sister who saw her partner and father of their two kids die in the most crushing manner. I don’t know whether I can ever forget these nightmare memories in my lifetime,” he share his traumatic experience.
“Covid-19 has impacted everyone’s life in many ways. And this trauma or the feeling of being deserted, abandon and helplessness may proved to be catastrophe for the mental health of a person. It is seen in many cases that such kind of trauma during any kind of crisis situation, the trauma lies invisible and might cause the post-traumatic stress disorder,” Bhubaneswar Mental health expert Madhumita Das told.
“If such crisis last for couple of years, it will impact many of ours mental health. Now, the government needs to priorities mental health issue and include a structured mental health programme in its disaster management plan,” she added.