An anthropology professor at Panjab University (PU), Kewal Krishan, has published a paper on the “Dignity and rights of the dead and their Families: A compromise in the times of coronavirus disease,” along with two other co-authors, highlighting key observations and making suggestions on how to deal with deaths during the pandemic. The paper has been published in the August edition of the quarterly peer reviewed medical journal “Medicine, Science and the Law.”
The paper states that though the medical implications of the pandemic have been continuously discussed, the cultural and social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the lives of common people has been equally devastating. It adds that death and its associated cultural significations in communities across the world and the ways in which the pandemic has affected this phenomenon has barely been addressed at all in critical academic or even non-academic discussion.
“Death and its associated rituals are essential to understanding human culture and societal values. Death has been celebrated throughout human history, with the most grandiose of monuments being attributed to the preservation of the dead and related rituals,” explain the authors in their paper. The authors have also cited concrete examples how the cultural practices around death have been altered and caused acute psychological distress to families during the pandemic. It outlines, for example, how “the practice of cleaning (bathing) and dressing the body has been severely restricted in order to prevent the spread of disease.” The authors add that “in addition to the justifiable restrictions as a measure of infection prevention and control practices, several reports have emerged of unwarranted reactions of the general public that further cause anguish and suffering to the family” (of the deceased.)
Bringing to light certain distressing incidents of stigmatisation which have occurred across the globe during the pandemic, the paper cites the example of a 24-year-old Nepalese man, whose family was treated as outcasts after the man died with Covid-19 like symptoms, even before the deceased man was tested for the disease. “While the family was able to garner support from the society following the negative result, one is left wondering about the ordeals faced by the families of the hundreds of thousands who have died from the disease,” the authors state in their paper.
The paper highlights other incidents where the deceased were buried in undignified ways and outside the ambit of the cultural and religious customs which would have normally been practiced by their family and communities before their bodies were buried or cremated. In New York, for example, the authors state, they resorted to “burying unclaimed bodies in unmarked mass graves at Hart Island.” Other such incidents have been reported from “Manaus, Brazil, where the dead bodies were being buried in mass graves ‘stacked in three-high piles’ at the Parque Taruma cemetery.”
Closer home, such incidents have occurred in India too on the regular, despite the fact that the country’s “Section 297 of the Indian Penal Code protects the rights of the deceased from any form of indignity,” which includes “acts that cause disturbances to people assembled for funeral ceremonies.” The paper cites media reports where this code and the sentiments of people have been blatantly violated. “Local communities have restricted the transport of dead bodies for funeral processes, have resisted burials and cremations and have often resorted to mob violence against the bereaved. There have even been reports of family members of the deceased refusing to perform funerary rituals for fear of transmission,” state the authors.
The authors conclude that the pandemic has led to “general ineptitude and disregard for the dignity and rights of the dead and their families.” They further suggest that in order to prevent such indignities to occur in the future, authorities need to be held accountable and sensitised through daily interactions on how to manage the dead in a dignified manner and how to help alleviate the psychological distress caused to the masses. The paper also points towards the guidelines made by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on the dignified management of the dead in disaster like situations, which should be widely disseminated amongst authorities and officials.
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