Burial of COVID-19 victims takes another turn

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Residents questioned why the govt. ignored areas suggested by Muslim community to bury their dead

The island is also well known as a paradise for aquamarine waters

Health DG says decision on Iranaitivu island is temporary


The decision regarding burial of COVID-19 victims was subject to many twists and turns. After more than a year and so many discussions, the government finally allowed it, in the face of vehement criticism from rights groups.

Although the government’s decision to allow burial of COVID-19 victims was welcomed by Muslim community, the decision to bury the victims in Iranaitivu island has been heavily criticized by the residents of the island.

As Iranaitivu had been chosen on the basis that it is “less populated”, Sri Lanka Navy started digging up graves. Iranaitivu, lies in the Gulf of Mannar,is made up of two linked islands - Periyathivu and Sinnathivu. The island is situated between the southernmost tip of India and the north of Sri Lanka. It is principally inhabited by Catholic Tamils who have struggled to reoccupy their land for decades since 1992. The island is also well known as a paradise for aquamarine waters.

During the war, the Iranaitivu area has also been heavily impacted. Resettlements were slowly taking place. The residents, who staged the protest said, the 417 families living in the island would be facing a new set of problems if the government starts burying the COVID-19 victims there.


Opposition by Iranaitivu residents 
The residents, calling upon government to reconsider the decision, also questioned why the Sri Lanka government chose to ignore the multiple areas suggested by the Muslim community to bury their dead and to designate it to an area which has its own problems remaining unsolved.

In a letter that was handed over to the offices of the Poonakary Divisional Secretary, Jaffna District Bishop and the Jaffna Human Rights Commission, the residents said: “We the people of Iranaitivu along with the North and East people will continuously stand up for the burial rights of our fellow Muslim community and voice against the forced cremations. We emphasize that the dead bodies must be given due respect according to the universal humanitarian values. Transporting the dead bodies of COVID infected persons from place to place is a violation of the dignity of those deceased as well as their families.”

It will take several days to finalize burial guidelines: Health Services Director General
The World Health Organization has provided extensive guidance on how the bodies of those who have died from Covid should be handled safely. However, the initial guidelines with regard to the burial, are yet to be released by Sri Lankan health authorities. According to Director General of Health Services, Dr. Asela Gunawardane, professionals have already met to finalize certain guidelines to be followed while carrying out burial.

“We have so many areas to think when finalizing these guidelines. How to release the bodies, how to transport those bodies and what areas should be identified as burial sites. It will take several days to finalize these guidelines. After that, the next step will be submitting these guidelines to the COVID-19 Committee, seeking approval. Then the final step will be issuing these finalized and approved guidelines as a circular. Then only burials will be officially allowed to practice,” Dr. Gunawardane said.

“The decision to select Iranaithivu Island to bury COVID victims was temporary and preliminary. It will be temporary until the committee comprising of Provincial Councils General Secretaries, Divisional Secretaries, Provincial and Divisional Health Directors and relevant government officers, determines a suitable location to bury COVID victims from their respective provinces. It has been mentioned in the circular that the relevant location will be sent to me for the approval. The Iranaithivu Island was selected until these findings are determined and approved,” Dr. Gunawardane added.


Prof. Jennifer Perera’s committee has already issued guidelines on burial
When the expert committee headed by Professor Jennifer Perera handed over on 28 December 2020, they said COVID-19 infected bodies could either be buried or cremated. They issued several guidelines on how to carry out the burial. The guidelines said the burial has to be done within twenty four hours, under the supervision of health officials. Bodies cannot be taken home, as per the guidelines. If a COVID-19 victim is being buried, only four close relatives may attend. These relatives can remain there only for five minutes. The committee recommendations also stated that only one religious leader may be present and it is not permitted to open the casket. Importantly they said burial should not take place close to water sources. 

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