Updated: May 8, 2021 9:10:27 pm
In April last year, the village panchayat of Manchar in Ambegaon taluka of Pune district faced a difficult situation when the rural hospital reported two deaths due to Covid-19. None of the relatives of the deceased were ready to claim the body and conduct the last rites.
Datta Ganjale, the then sarpanch of this peri-urban area, 64 km from Pune city, and his friends decided to take up the task. Back then, the virus was relatively new but the fear surrounding it was at its height, and he was fully aware of the risks involved.
“PPE suits were new to us but somehow we managed to get in them and with a lot of clumsy moves, we transported the bodies to the cremation ground and conducted the last rites. By the time we finished, we felt as if we had managed to do something worthwhile in a pandemic, which was just starting to worsen,” he said.
Since then, this group has taken up the responsibility of conducting the last rites of many Covid-19 patients and till date, it has conducted 225 such cremations. Initially, Ganjale and others used to conduct the last rites of unclaimed bodies but later, as the number of infection cases increased, they also started conducting the last rites of deceased Covid-19 patients whose relatives were either not available or had tested positive.
Along with Ganjale, his young colleagues — Kalpesh Bankhele, Mahesh Ghodke, Sushat Thorat, Aakash Morde, Akshay Chikale, Suraj Dharam, Shubham Gavali, Jayesh Bhalerao, Swapnil Lokhande, Rahul Thorat, Gattu Shete, Rupesh Morde, Sagar Renukadas, and Khusal Gade — worked round-the-clock to carry out a task which few wanted.
“Our team also included Gaurav Barne, Ganesh Shinde, Amit Kate and Harish Tothre… it was a collective effort to face a pandemic which none had ever imagined would strike our area,” he said.
Over a year after the pandemic started, and in the middle of a massive second surge of infections, Ganjale and his team has been called repeatedly to conduct the last rites of Covid-19 patients. Earlier, the gram panchayat used to provide the team with PPE kits but after the number of Covid deaths started rising, such suits have disappeared.
“It’s our experience that if we wear masks and gloves, the risk reduces a lot,” said Ganjale. In the initial days, the gram panchayat used to bear the cost of the funerals but even that has stopped.
“If family members are around, they do the symbolic mukhagni and the smashing of the water pot, after which we take up the work,” he said. On conducting the last rites of Covid-19 patients without PPE kits, Ganjale said the bodies these days come in body bags, so risks have reduced.
Over the last year, Ganjale and his colleagues have dealt with the dreadful isolation and ruthlessness of the disease in many ways. They have often received calls from hapless relatives, asking them to conduct the last rites as they themselves have been admitted in hospitals.
”A few days ago, police called us to conduct the last rites of an old woman. When we called her son, he said he was admitted in a facility in Pune city and could not come… it fell upon us,” he said.
The task is not only difficult, it can also be emotionally devastating. Days after they conduct the rites of a young person, the heart-wrenching wails of the family members ring in their ears, said Ganjale, adding that they sometimes find it difficult to eat due to the strain.
While the gloom of death hangs in the air, the only glimmer of hope for Ganjale and his team is that vaccines are now available. “Majority of us have taken at least the first dose of the vaccine… the government should speed up the vaccination process” he said.
After dealing with Covid deaths at such close quarters, Ganjale knows the terrible isolation that the disease foists on those it affects. The loneliness and the helplessness of relatives who are not even able to bid last farewells to their dear ones should urge people to take this disease seriously and follow norms.
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