A collective of citizens and organizations comprising leading civil society members, academics and activists, has written to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the disposal of bodies of deceased persons who were infected with and suspected of being infected with COVID-19. The letter has been copied to Health Minister Pavithra Waniarachchi, Director General Health Services Dr. Anil Jasinghe, Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Sudath Samaraweera, Director of the Infectious Diseases Hospital Dr. Hasitha Attanayake, Chief Judicial Medical Officer Dr. Ajith Tennakoon, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission Dr. Deepika Udagama and WHO Sri Lanka Representative Dr. Razia Pendse.
The full statement is as follows:
We, at the outset, would like to express our gratitude to the public officials in Sri Lanka for their contribution towards preventing and dealing with COVID-19, particularly the untiring and selfless service of health sector workers.
We write with regard to the disposal of bodies of persons who died due to being infected with, and those that died who are suspected of being infected with COVID-19. We were pleased that the Ministry of Health Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID 19 Suspected and Confirmed Patients dated March 27, 2020 allowed for burial under certain conditions, and the family of the deceased to view the body at a designated place at the hospital. We were however concerned to learn that an individual of the Muslim faith who died due to COVID-19 was cremated on March 30, 2020 in contravention of the said Ministry of Health Guidelines and against the wishes of the family.
We note that the Ministry of Health Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines on COVID 19 Suspected and Confirmed Patients were thereafter amended and the new document dated 31 March 2020 as well as the Ministry of Health (MOH) Circular No. EPID/400/2019 n-cov issued on April 1, 2020, which reproduces the amended Guidelines, require that all COVID-19 victims be cremated. We also note contradictory media reports on April 2, 2020 that Cabinet Spokesperson Bandula Gunawardena has stated that the government will adhere to WHO Guidelines in disposing of the bodies of those who have died as a result of COVID- 19, as well as the appointment of an expert committee to decide on appropriate and practices to deal with the bodies of those who die due to COVID-19.
When we face such a grave public health crisis there is a need to ensure that the mental health of our population is also given due attention. In this regard, the disposal of bodies of persons who died during the pandemic requires particular attention. In the Muslim faith it is required that the dead be buried and cremation is not permitted. The possibility of compulsory cremation therefore is a matter of great distress to practicing Muslims. In these times of distress and uncertainty this is an added stressor that may adversely impact the mental health of large numbers in the population.
At present, the religious identity of certain victims has been highlighted due to which, in both mainstream and social media, we have seen outpourings of vitriol, and hate speech against Muslims for their actions or inactions in not preventing or causing the spread of COVID-19. In this context, it is important that the decisions made regarding burial are not perceived as punitive measures against such perceived irresponsibility by infected persons. We must also recognize that there is widespread anti Muslim sentiment prevailing in Sri Lanka and has been for the past several years. The negative stereotypes about Muslims were exacerbated by the terror attacks on Easter Sunday in 2019 carried out by an ISIS inspired group of Muslims. It is important to ensure that decisions regarding matters of public health do not result in the persecution or marginalization of the Muslim population. Within such a context, we note with concern that the revised MOH Guidelines dated 31 March 2020 and the aforementioned MOH Circular disregard Muslim religious sensibilities and requirements, and provide no succor to the already distressed.
In this regard, we urge you to consider the WHO Interim Guidance dated 24 March 2020 on Infection Prevention and Control for the Safe Management of a Dead Body in the Context of COVID-19. The Guidance states that ‘cadavers do not transmit disease’ and that ‘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’. The Guidance further advises the authorities to ‘manage each situation on a case-by-case basis, balancing the rights of the family, the need to investigate the cause of death, and the risks of exposure to infection’. Where disposal is concerned, the Guidance says that ‘People who have died from COVID-19 can be buried or cremated’. We recognize that the option of burial might not be available in certain instances due to legitimate public health requirements such as the depth of graves. To address these concerns, the state could identify suitable burial grounds that meet WHO standards in all districts and request the particular community religious authorities to prepare themselves to adhere to those standards.
In seeking to ensure the well-being of all Sri Lankans at this difficult time, we highlight the need to also ensure dignity in death. In addition to the issue of Muslim and perhaps Christian burials, we have witnessed that the media is permitted to cover the cremation of those who died from COVID-19 without any consideration of the wishes of the bereaved families. While preserving the health of our population must be paramount, it must not be at the cost of our common humanity and the dignity of our dead. WHO guidelines state that, ‘The dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions, and their families should be respected and protected throughout’.
Moreover, to encourage persons to report possible exposure and seek medical advice and help, we highlight the need to not stigmatize patients or criminalize them in any way, which will only lead to persons hiding their symptoms and further infecting others. It is also important to ensure there is public information in all three languages regarding the behavior required under different circumstances as well as regarding the available medical care. The availability of such information will reassure the general population that being infected with COVID-19 is not a death sentence.
We therefore urge you to reconsider the MOH Circular of April 1, 2020 and amendments dated March 31, 2020 to the MOH Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines, and instead follow WHO Guidance on the disposal of bodies. We also call upon your Excellency to address the country’s greatly distressed Muslims and put to rest their fears that they are somehow being punished, or that the country has little respect for their concerns.
List of signatories
Dr. Asha Abeysekere
Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare
K. Aingkaran, Attorney-at-law
Dr. Harini Amarasuriya, Open University Of Sri Lanka
Faaiz, Ameer , Attorney-at-law
Prof. Ameer Ali
Swathika Arulingam, Attorney at law
Subajini Kisho Anton, Attorney at law
M.M. Baheej, Attorney-at-law
Capt. A.G.A. Barrie, SLE, P.Eng.
Danesh Cassie Chetty
Amalini De Sayrah
Bishop Duleep de Chickera
Geetha de Chickera
Marisa De Silva
Shaanea Mendis de Silva, Artist
Dinesh Dogangoda, Attorney-at-law
K.M.Deen, All Ceylon YMMA Conference
Sunanda Deshapriya (Journalist)
Rev. Sister Nicola Emmanuel.
Mohamed Faslan, University of Colombo
Latheef Farook, Journalist
Dr. Kaushalya Fernando
Dr. Nimalka Fernando, Attorney-at-law
Rev. Reid Shelton Fernando, Retired Priest, Colombo
C. Ranitha Gnanarajah Attorney -at law
Dr. Mario Gomez
Prof. Camena Guneratna
Anberiya Hanifa, Muslim Women’s Research and Action Forum
Dr. Farzana Haniffa, University Of Colombo
Prof. Rajan Hoole
Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole
Prof. Qadri Ismail
Fathima Nabeela Iqbal
U.L. Jaufer, Attorney-at-law
Dr. Sivagnanam Jeyasankar
Sr. Victorine James, Holy Cross School of health Sciences Jaffna
Dr. Ahilan Kadirgamar, University Of Jaffna
Dr. Ramya Kumar
Jeremy Liyanage, Bridging Lanka Ltd.
Justice. Dr. Saleem Marsoof
M. Meera Saibu
Dr. Farah Mihlar
Nawaz Mohamed, Former Working Director, SLRC
F. Z. Nasrullah
Devanesan Nesiah, Retired Secretary, Ministry of Transport, Environment and Women’s Affairs
Prof. Vasuki Nesiah, New York University
Prof. Arjuna Parakrama, University Of Peradeniya
Nicola Perera, University Of Colombo.
Dr. Jehan Perera, National Peace Council
Srinath Perera, Attorney-at-aw, United Socialist Party
Rev. Dr. Jayasiri Peiris, Church of Ceylon
K.S. Ratnavel, Attorney-at-law
Dr. Ramola Rasool, University Of Kelaniya
Prof. Harshana Rambukwella, Open University Of Sri Lanka
Peter Rezel - Chartered Accountant
Prof. Malathi de Alwis
Prof. Sivamohan Sumathy, University Of Peradeniya
Prof. Gameela Samarasinghe, University Of Colombo.
Rev. Selvanathan Selvan
Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu
Dr. Seyed Sheriffdeen
Sharmila Seyyid, Social Worker
Revd. S .D .P. Selvan
Shreen Abdul Saroor
Mahendran Thiruvarangan, Lecturer (Probationary), University of Jaffna
Dr. Minna Thaheer, Senior Researcher, Centre for Poverty Analysis
Fathima Nusra Thameem
Mathuri Thamilmaran - Attorney at Law
Visakha Tillekeratne, Chief Commissioner, Sri Lanka Girl Guides Association
Mass Usuf, Attorney-at-law
Emil van der Poorten
Lal Wijenayake, Attorney-at-law
Upul Kumara Wickramasinghe - Durham University
Riza Yahiya, Architect
Deshamanya Godfrey Yogarajah
Fr. V. Yogeswaran