They say he devoted his entire life to Meghalaya. And yet, in death, they turned their backs on him, reducing him to a mere statistic.
On Thursday, Meghalaya’s first COVID-19 patient — a 69-year-old physician and founder of one of the first big private hospitals of the state — was buried at a church cemetery, almost 36 hours after he died.
“Kindness is the need of the hour and our gratitude goes to the Riatsamthiah Presbyterian Church for their gesture. May his soul rest in peace,” tweeted Chief Minister Conrad Sangma.
Sangma’s message was in response to the events that unfolded after the patient’s death, with the administration unable to find a place to lay him to rest.
The family wanted to bury him in Nongpoh, where they own a house. But residents and community leaders refused, citing the virus. Then, when discussions started to cremate the body, those living near the crematorium in Shillong’s Jhalupara protested.
“The family members wanted to lay him to rest in their personal land in Ri Bhoi district, but there was some trouble. Then they wanted to have him cremated, but the public came out against it,” said Matsiewdor War Nongbri, DC, East Khasi Hills District.
And all this while, the doctor’s body lay in the hospital he had founded nearly two decades ago.
Finally, on Wednesday night, the government reached out to churches. “They responded. We are thankful to them,” Sampath Kumar, commissioner and secretary, health and family welfare department, said.
The funeral was attended by three family members. “They were not his immediate family because many of them have tested positive now,” said DC Nongbri.
Till Monday night, Meghalaya had not reported a single positive case. But by Wednesday, the state had reported eight more cases, all family members and helpers of the doctor. His son-in-law, a pilot, had a travel history to New York and Delhi late last month, officials said. He had returned to Shillong on March 24 but it has not been ascertained yet as to how the doctor got infected, they said.
A Shillong resident, who knew the doctor, said it was “a huge embarrassment for the state that certain groups disallowed the last rites of such a loved man”.
“The entire family, who lived within the hospital compound, was involved in the hospital some way or the other,” said a person, close to the family.
The patient’s two daughters are doctors, too, while the sons manage the multi-speciality hospital, which started as a clinic in 1991. Today, the hospital has two branches — in Shillong and in Nongpoh. “It is the go-to hospital in Shillong with a good team of doctors,” Patricia Mukhim, senior journalist and editor of The Shillong Times, said.
The hospital, in fact, follows a ‘Good Samaritan’s Pledge’ to serve underprivileged sections, and offers a range of free and discounted services for the needy.
“He was known for his social work, waiving off fees for the poor, etc. What set him apart from many other doctors was that he always had a smile and a gentle demeanour,” Mukhim said.
And yet, when it emerged Tuesday that the doctor had tested positive, his family was viciously targeted on local social media groups.
So much so, that the son-in-law wrote in an unsigned statement circulated on WhatsApp that he had tested negative twice. He said that other members of his wife’s family had tested positive and “there were no efforts to segregate us”. “We are still together in the same house,” he said.
He pointed out that one of the doctor’s patients could have been responsible for the infection. “The search and isolation of this person is where the state’s energy and resources should be directed at, not target people with or without reason,” he wrote.
“It has been 12 hours since my father-in-law passed away, silently. My wife just lost her father. We do not know whether his cremation is over. We were not there to weep beside his body. It has also been almost 48 hours since the news was made public and the media and social media jumped in to vilify us. The ripples have reached my family in Manipur and Nagaland. Nobody has been spared,” he wrote.
“The coronavirus is a tiny virus — unseen, lifeless yet intelligent; it has made us humans, the greatest creation of God, show our ugliest side… My father-in-law literally spent his life in the treatment of his patients. This is not an acceptable way to honour his memory,” he wrote.
A health department official said that since it was the first coronavirus death in the state, there was “some sort of panic”. “But the protocol issued by the government for the last rites is very comprehensive. There is absolutely nothing to fear,” the official said.
On Thursday, the Meghalaya High Court said that the way the state authorities handled the matter was “inept” and the conduct of the local bodies “has shocked the conscience of every right thinking individual.”
The court directed the authorities “to strictly follow the guidelines on dead body management” by Centre and World Health Organisation (WHO) . It added that any person or body which obstructs the authorities in pandemic control in any manner including, “dead body management, cremation and burial shall be dealt with in accordance with law and cases to be registered under appropriate provisions of law”.
The doctor’s family members have nothing to say. But a close relative summed up their mood: “There are people who will be sad and sorry about this, there are people who will be spiteful. We do not need to feel disheartened. He has gone to heaven — it has happened the way God wanted it to.”
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