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Indian Express Stories of Strength

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A 2,000-strong volunteer team readies up to help with final rites of Covid-19 patients

“In such situations, the value of a human being is at stake and it doesn’t matter what religion he or she may have belonged to.”

July 24, 2020 7:57:21 pm

KOCHI: The Covid-19 pandemic has brought out the best and worst in people. Where there are families ostracising their own members for getting infected, there are also young men and women signing up fearlessly to do the last rites for those whom they hardly knew.

In central Kerala, Sahrudaya, the charitable arm of the Ernakulam-Angamaly archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church, is readying teams of volunteers across its parishes to perform the last rites of people dying due to Covid-19 irrespective of the religious faith they belong to. It has already assisted in the last rites of one Covid-19 patient.

Fr Joseph Koluthuvallil, director of Sahrudaya Samaritans, got worked up about it in June when he observed extreme fear and paranoia among families of those succumbing to the infection. In most cases, they were too numb to react to the deaths. He had also seen photos and visuals in other states of the manner in which the Covid-19 dead were being interred as bodies began to pile up. He didn’t want such a situation to arise in Kerala, where, fortunately, as of July 23, the mortality rate is still among the lowest in the country.

“The people who fall to Covid-19, no matter what religion or caste they belong to, must be given the last rites with the dignity and respect they deserve,” Fr Koluthuvallil said over the phone. “Not everyone is brave enough to come near the body of a person who dies of the virus. We are therefore keen that no one should be in such a helpless situation. We will intervene if our help is required.”

With most of the Covid-19 deaths in Kerala, up to 45 as of July 22, family members of the deceased usually volunteer to take part in the last rites by donning the personal protection (PPE) kits. In situations, where such families are reluctant or absent, health workers and those employed by the local bodies step in to do the needful. But with deaths rising gradually and a section of the health workers also getting affected by the virus and going into quarantine, there may come a point where there’s no one around to dispose of the dead.

And that’s where Fr Koluthuvallil and his team step in. As early as June, he sent letters to nearly 300 parishes across the districts of Thrissur, Ernakulam, Kottayam and Alappuzha where the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church wields influence, requesting for coordinators and volunteers to engage in last rites of Covid-19 dead. Each parish was to appoint a coordinator and at least eight volunteers. Though many expressed safety concerns initially, a webinar organised by the Ernakulam district health department on the do’s and don’ts of funerals of Covid-19 dead sought to allay those fears completely. What came out was an army of over 2,000 volunteers of all faiths, mostly powered by the youth, that overwhelmed even Fr Koluthuvallil’s imaginations.

There are two ways Sahrudaya volunteers can be informed of a Covid-19 death; through their internal Church networks or through communications from the district health departments. The funerals, be they of Hindu, Christian or Muslim faiths, are undertaken under strict guidance of the local health departments usually by the presence of a health inspector. The process involves identifying the final resting place, bringing the body by ambulance from the hospital to the crematorium or graveyard, performing the final rites in the presence of a priest, and then cremating or burying it according to protocol. The PPE kits to be worn by the volunteers are sponsored by Sahrudaya using funds from their respective parishes.

Dr Sreenivasan, the nodal officer in-charge of Covid-deaths in the Ernakulam health department, lauded the initiative. “It’s a huge favour for us. In case of emergencies, if we need any external help, we could always count on them. Because in such situations, the value of a human being is at stake and it doesn’t matter what religion he or she may have belonged to,” he said.

He explained that the highly comprehensive process by which Covid-19 dead bodies are wrapped to prevent any further spread of infection and why no one has any reason to be wary of dealing with such bodies during funerals. “Once a patient dies, all the holes in the body are sutured up using cotton and charcoal. The body is then disinfected using a bleaching solution and wrapped up in white cloth twice. A third layer of plastic film-like substance is used to wrap it. Two more layers of white cloth are used. And then, the body is packed into a three-layer body bag. No virus can come out of such a tightly-packed body. It can be easily handled,” said Dr Sreenivasan, who has himself attended to such bodies.

Anandu, a coordinator for disaster risk reduction at Sahrudaya, is aware of the dangers facing Kerala if the state moves toward a community spread. Government hospitals can get overwhelmed. Health workers would be under great duress. And that’s where social workers like him can play a role. “This can happen to anyone in any family. If my family gets affected and if I have to be under quarantine, I wouldn’t be able to come out to participate in the final rites. So in my place, a social worker has to be present. So I see this as our responsibility,” he said.

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