The desperate protestors in the Iranaithivu island fill the proposed grave yard dug by the military
Pic by Sithum Chathuranga
Residents' permission not sought regarding the burial of the COVID- 19 bodies
Possible loss of livelihood in a certain area and because the island is small
Muslims say their burial grounds are suitable to bury the COVID- 19 deceased
Dead bodies must be given due respect as per the culture of our country
After more than 300 days since cremation was made mandatory for the COVID- 19 deceased, the Government of Sri Lanka reversed the decision through Gazette 2216/38 on February 25, by allowing the burial of those who succumbed to COVID- 19. Further to the decision to allow burials, on March 2 at a weekly cabinet briefing, Cabinet Spokesperson Minister Keheliya Rambukwella stated that Iranaithivu island was chosen as a place to bury the COVID- 19 deceased. However, residents of the island protested against this decision.
“Our permission not sought,” – Iranaithivu Residents
“The residents came to know of the decision only when the media announced it. Their permission was not sought regarding the burial of the COVID- 19 bodies here,” stated Y. Figurado, a Human Rights activist. He added that the residents do not agree to the burial of the COVID- 19 deceased in the island. “Why is there a need to bring in bodies from across the country to Iranaithivu? Why can’t the Government allow the burials of the bodies in the areas that they have died? It would be the best for all if the bodies were buried in the areas that the persons died, following the health guidelines. There is no need to bring the bodies here to Iranaithivu,” he remarked.
He shared that this island was inhabited by around 100 families, predominantly Catholic. “The main livelihood is fishing. The possible loss of livelihood in a certain area and because the island is a small area, the residents vehemently oppose burying the COVID- 19 deceased in Iranaithivu,” he said.
The pits dug by the Sri Lankan Navy, for the burial of the COVID- 19 deceased, were filled by the residents of Iranaithivu, as an act of protest against the decision. Parish Priest, Rev. Fr. Pathi stated in a video shared on social media, that the residents have nothing against the Muslims, but are worried about contracting COVID- 19. He also added that the water table was situated at a low level in the area. “The Muslims have stated that some of their burial grounds are suitable to bury the COVID- 19 deceased. So why can’t the government allow the burial in those graveyards?” he questioned. A protest was held by the residents on March 3 requesting the government to immediately withdraw the decision to bury the COVID- 19 deceased in Iranaithivu.
It is not practical to transport a virus infected dead body safely by boat and cross 20km sea distance. We, the people of Iranaithivu along with our fellow North and East people continuously stand up for the burial rights of our fellow Muslim community and voice against the forced cremations
The residents had also sent an open appeal to the government requesting to reconsider the decision. “It takes nearly one and-a-half hours to travel from the Mulangavil mainland to Iranaithivu by boat under normal weather conditions. When the sea is rough and weather is unfavourable, sea travel is prevented. Therefore, it is not practical to transport a virus infected dead body safely by boat and cross 20km sea distance. We, the people of Iranaithivu along with our fellow North and East people 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 culture of our country as well according to the universal humanitarian values.
Transporting the dead bodies of COVID-19 infected from place to place is a violation and dignity of those deceased as well as their families,” the letter also stated that making the island village a burial ground of COVID- 19 deceased would destruct their lives. The residents also requested the government to give due respect and ensure the burial rights of Muslims and other communities in suitable places.
“No geologists in technical committee,”- Prof. Atula Senaratne
Professor of Geology attached to the University of Peradeniya, Prof. Atula Senaratne shared that the burial of those who have succumbed to COVID- 19 has to be done in an area with clayey soil in the dry zone. “The science behind this is, fluids from the body including the contaminants can travel through the soil and reach the water table. In sandy soil, the fluids travel very fast. But, in clayey soil, the penetration rate is slower,” he said adding that in the dry zones, the fluids would evaporate due to the high evaporation level in such an environment. He also added that water tables were situated far below the ground level in the dry zones.
While adding the technical committee had specified a distance of 1.5m from the water table, Prof. Senaratne claimed that no geologists were in the technical committee. “A distance of 1.5m from the water table could lead to the fluids to rapidly penetrate into the water table as moisture is still present.” He also opined that conducting geological surveys before erecting a cemetery would be beneficial. “I would also advise to conduct geological surveys in existing cemeteries,” he stated.
“There is no risk of COVID- 19 transmission via burial,”- Prof. Malik Peiris
At a webinar conducted by the College of Community Physicians, Sri Lanka (CCPSL), Prof. Malik Peiris, a renowned Sri Lankan pathologist and virologist currently based in Hong Kong, refuted claims of the virus contaminating the water tables. “In Sri Lanka, we mostly have soakage pit latrines except in areas like Colombo and Kandy, where we have a central sewage system. In soakage pit latrines, the virus will seep through the soil, the process will take some time. During that time, the viruses are filtered and get perished. After seeping through the soil, it will enter the water system. The risk of transmission from soakage pit latrines is negligible. Likewise, when a body is buried, the virus will be physically filtered through the soil. It too takes time and the virus will be dying. Therefore, there can also be no risk from burying those who died of COVID- 19.”
He added that the COVID- 19 viruses are shed in the stools of the patients and authorities should take precautions during the disposal of sewage waste to ensure there is no gross direct contamination of water. Prof. Peiris also remarked that despite being a scientist, knowledge of virology is needed to understand the transmission of the virus. “If you don’t have a good understanding of infectious diseases, virology or how to control contagious diseases, it could lead to very wrong conclusions.”
Kuppiyawatte Burial Grounds can be utilized
In a letter dated February 27, the Trustees of the Maradana Mosque who manage the Kuppiyawatte Burial Grounds had written to Dr. Asela Gunawardena, Director General of Health Services, stating that the burial grounds could be utilized for the purpose of burying those who died of COVID- 19. They had also stated that the water table was detected at a depth of 2.5m- 3m, through a Ground Water Table Test Report conducted by a technical team under Prof. Senaratne. The Trustees had stated in the letter that the depth of the water table allowed for the burial of COVID- 19 deceased according to the Health Ministry expectations. It was further stated in the report that the soil was a lateritic- clayey soil.
The Mosque has not received any response from the DGHS as of yet.
“The residents have nothing against the Muslims, but are worried about contracting COVID- 19. The Muslims have stated that some of their burial grounds are suitable to bury the COVID- 19 deceased. So why can’t the government allow the burial in those graveyards?”
Iranaithivu burials - A strategy to pitch minority communities against each other?
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Shreen Saroor, a Human Rights activist stated that choosing Iranaithivu could be seen as a ‘plot to pitch the Tamils against the Muslims’. “Iranaithivu has been in navy occupation for 25 years and only in 2018, the community had returned. Taking the mostly Muslim COVID bodies to bury there would mean that this returning population will be deprived of their fishing access from a certain part of this island. Why should our burial rights take away another small community’s access to livelihood?” she questioned.
Many on social media were of similar views. K. Guruparan, Attorney- at-Law, tweeted “The intention is to divide the new-found solidarity between the Tamil and Muslim communities on the very same issue that brought them together.” Another twitter user, M. Ansar tweeted “Divide and rule, create a rift…that’s the mantra of our politicians.”
Some social media users questioned the decision. “According to the government, families of those who died of COVID- 19 have to travel 12 nautical miles from Iranamata Nagar by boat to the Iranaithivu Island and bury their loved ones. Is this possible?” tweeted a user. Some had pointed out that many of the COVID- 19 deaths were from the Western Province, therefore places near the Western Province should be sought for burials. “Places that fulfil the necessary scientific requirements and are closer to areas where most of the deaths have occurred should be where burials take place. It makes no sense to have the bodies buried far away,” a social media user commented.
According to media reports, Dr. Gunawardena had stated that the guidelines of the burial of COVID- 19 deceased has been finalized. He had remarked that the burial of COVID- 19 deceased in Iranaitivu was a temporary and preliminary decision. Dr. Gunawardena added that the expenses for the burials would be borne by the state and burial rites would be conducted under the supervision of the relevant Medical Officer of Health or Public Health Inspectors and security officers. He had further stated that conducting the religious observances will be permitted at the hospital and that the bodies will be sealed as they are taken for burial.
Expert committee decides suitable locations to bury; Minister Rambukwella
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Minister Rambukwella stated that the expert committee decides the suitable locations to bury the bodies of those who have succumbed to COVID- 19 “Regarding the protests at Iranaithivu, while the residents do have a concern, I am unable to comment on it as I do not have an idea of the geography of the island,” he remarked. When asked about why the Kuppiyawatte Burial Grounds was not considered, he stated that the health sector has to evaluate and make the decision regarding it.
Health Ministry issues procedure to burry Covid deceased in Iranathivu
A Health Ministry circular DGHS/COVID-19/347-2021 issued last night, it was stated that cremation/burial of the COVID- 19 deceased should take place within 24 hours after issuing the documents pertaining to the release of the corpse. It was advised that the bodies should not be washed or embalmed nor handed over to the relatives. It was further stated that unclaimed/unidentified corpses will be cremated at the government’s expense.
According to the circular, the coffin should be provided by the relatives and the corpse would be placed in a body bag. The circular further stated that 10 minutes will be allowed for religious activities to take place in the hospital and only five members of the family at a time is permitted to attend the religious activity and view the body at the hospital. Viewing of the corpse shall take place while the corpse is placed in the body bag, and will be allowed only for 10 minutes with the relatives observing physical distancing and the Standard Infection Prevention Control (SIPC) precautions. The corpse would be then transported to the place of disposal by an authorized mode of transportation with a police escort. The entire process would be observed by the area MOH/PHI and police until the cremation/burial process has ended. In case of cremation, the body will be cremated at the closest designated crematorium while burial will take place at a common designated cemetery/burial site designated by the DGHS. After cremation, relatives will be able to obtain the ashes at their request.
The above procedure will also be followed in case the body tests positive for COVID- 19 after death.
For burial, the following instructions were prescribed in the circular. It was stated that ‘burial preferably will be performed in an island adhering to adequate requirements.’ The corpse has to be buried at a depth of 1.5-3.0m while the bottom of the grave should be at least 2.0m above the groundwater table. The minimum distance to the water sources were as follows:
- 4 or less bodies in the area- 200m
- 5- 60 bodies in the area- 250m
- >60 bodies in the area- 350m
- 120 bodies per 100m2 – 350m
In the SOP of Transportation and Burial of COVID- 19 deaths, it was stated that the relatives had to inform, without delay, to the Director/ Head of Health Care Institution if they wish to bury the corpse. The Director/ Head has to obtain a written request from the relatives regarding the burial. In this SOP, it was stated that the Director/ Head should include the place of burial as Iranaitivu Island in the Death Declaration Form. This Form would be used to transport the corpse from the hospital and for the burial. In case of an inquest, the burial site has to be included by the Inquirer into Sudden Death (ISD)/ Magistrate in the document issued by them. The coffin has to be provided by the relatives and the date and time of dispatch of the corpse would be informed to them by the Director/Head. The corpse would be transported in the coffin to a designated location in the Colombo Institute of Forensic Medicine and Toxicology (Office of JMO Colombo)/ BH Welikanda. Then the corpse will be transported to the Nachchikuda pier. The vehicle that transports the corpse to this location will leave daily at 5.30am from the designated receiving center. The corpse will be then handed over to the respective authority at the Nachchikuda pier and the process would be supervised by the MOH/PHI. The burial process will take place facilitated and coordinated by the police/ security personnel at an island marked by the Government. The burial process will occur in the presence of two relatives and MOH/PHI of the area of burial along with the Police/Security personnel.
The relatives should not be patients infected with COVID- 19 and are allowed to be present at Nachchikuda pier to witness the burial at Iranaitivu island. Those under quarantine will be permitted under the guidance and approval of the MOH/Regional Epidemiologist. The relatives should adhere to the standard infection control measures. In the circular, it was stated that the coffin should not be opened and the relatives should not handle the body under any circumstance.