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Monday, June 01, 2020

After the end: What drives health workers who take care of the dead

So far, Mumbai has registered, eight confirmed coronavirus death. Out of the eight, three were buried at the cemetery.

Written by Sanjana Bhalerao | Mumbai | Updated: April 6, 2020 7:27:39 am
coronavirus, india coronavirus, india coronavirus death toll, india coronavirus dead cremation, india lockdown BMC’s health team sanitising the apartment of a Covid-19 patient. (Express Photo)

The morning of March 17, Kasturba Hospital — then the only centre to test and treat Covid-19 patients, witnessed an eerie silence. Mumbai saw it’s first Covid-19 related death; a 63-year-old man who had travelled to Dubai. The death spooked everyone in the ward, except perhaps Rajeev (name changed on request), the ward boy.

A senior approached Rajeev and gave him the task to prepare the dead body and move it to the mortuary from the isolation ward. Without hesitation, he prepared for the task. Having dealt with dead patients’ bodies that pose a high risk of infection in 2015 during the Swine-flu outbreak in the country, he knew the precautions he had to take.

Rajeev first wore gloves, masks, eye-wear and a bodysuit. He then, along with a staff member, wrapped the senior citizen’s body in a leak-proof plastic bag, zipped till the neck, and moved it to the freezer. Rajeev, who is in his 30s said, “I am not scared at all. I take all precautions and safety measures. We did not wrap the body in the plastic bag until a family member had seen it. Because once it is zipped and moved to the mortuary freezer, it cannot be opened, the risk of infection then is high”.

It was only after he transported the body to a biohazard-proof vehicle for electric cremation at Shivaji Park that he understood the scale of the work he had completed. His six-hour-long single shift was stretched to 24 hours and he was still not home. “I was tired that day. But the first thing I did after reaching home was to bathe again, eat well and get some sleep. The crucial thing I learnt about doing this work was to eat and sleep well. Many depend on alcohol to work in a mortuary, but I am against that. If I am not well-rested and fed, my chances of catching the infection are triple-fold,” explains Rajeev, who lives nearest to the hospital than his colleagues and is motivated by his wife to continue working and not skip his duty.

Before the body was taken to Shivaji Park crematorium, six relatives spent the entire morning in the hospital trying to figure out how to go about the cremation of a coronavirus-infected body, and whether it would be allowed by civic authorities. A similar question troubled, Dr Virendra Mohite, Medical officer of Health (MOH) who was given the task to monitor the cremation. After arranging the personal protective equipment for the crematorium workers, Mohite headed out to meet them. “Shifting the Covid-19 positive patient and preparing for his cremation five days later were the most challenging tasks for the team. Until then the staff had been involved in the awareness campaign”.

The body went straight from the ambulance to the incinerator. After the electric cremation, the staff — a team of five, burned their protective equipment, soaked their uniforms, and bathed. The crematorium did not accept any other bodies for cremation and barred any entry into the premises for a few hours.

So far, Mumbai has registered, eight confirmed coronavirus death. Out of the eight, three were buried at the cemetery. World Health Organisation (WHO) and AIIMS advise cremation — unless a family insists on burial for religious reasons — a request Mumbai civic body had not prepared for. As per the ministry’s advise, families are asked not to crowd the burial ground for paying condolences, not to hug, wash, or kiss the body. The first burial in the city was of a 68-year old Philippines national in the eastern suburb of Mumbai on March 24. As none of the family members could be present for the burial, the authorities had provided assistance. Following the concerns expressed by the community leader over the contamination, as most burial grounds are in densely populated localities, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) issued a circular emphasising on the cremation of the bodies. However, an exception will be made if the burial ground is large enough to not create the possibility of spread of infection in the neighbouring areas. However, the exception created a hassle in the burial of a senior citizen, who was suspected of Covid 19, the same day.

The Mumbai police following the earlier order, which had prohibited burial of bodies of all those who die of the Coronavirus infection, within the Mumbai jurisdiction, had refused to release the body of the senior citizen. The body was released after an intervention by Samajwadi Party MLA Rais Shaikh, who said that the mandatory bathing of the body was to be skipped. With Mumbai police recording the entire procedure, the body was lowered into the grave with a rope following which the grave was covered with earth.

Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?

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