COVID-19 Death: A Matter of Disposal

It is high time the state government consider framing a SOP for disposal of Covid-19-related dead bodies.


Now that Manipur has its first Covid-19 death in the person of a 56-year-old man with multiple ailments from Thoubal district, the question of disposal of the dead body would certainly be flagged in the coming days. One remembers the Shillong episode, when a doctor in Meghalaya died of Covid-19, becoming the first victim of novel coronavirus in the state. He was to be buried in the nearest cemetery but residents of the locality opposed his burial, fearing it would expose them to additional risk of contracting the virus. His body was then taken to a crematorium. The locals of the area protested his cremation. For 36 hours, his funeral could not take place. The government then intervened and approached a church, which provided the burial ground.

When a person dies, the body has to be disposed of and normally, religion takes over in these matters. A person’s faith is always taken into consideration while deciding the manner of disposal. Among the Manipuri Vaisnavites, the disposal ritual is elaborately laid out, while that of the Christians is not that elaborate. According to the ancient Puyas of Manipur, four forms of disposal of dead was in practice. The forms are by air, fire, earth and water. Among the Meiteis, burial both secondary and primary was in practice according to experts. But, in Covid times, the traditional practices of disposal has become a matter of concern as public health issues have taken over.

Funeral rites of those succumbing to Covid-19 have been an issue of controversy at least in China, Sri Lanka and in India. Should the body of a Covid-19 victim be cremated or buried? A majority of the population across the world prefer to bury their dead. The World Health Organisation (WHO), too, does not prohibit the burial of those dying of Covid-19. In the case of Covid-19, the pathogen novel coronavirus transmits from one person to another through droplets. This means it requires body fluid to keep finding new victims. Usually, burial takes seven-10 days in the decomposition of a body. The body retains fluid for three-four days. So theoretically, novel coronavirus can transmit during preparing the body for burial or if the grave is shallow over three-four days after the death. In the case of cremation, ashes don’t present that risk.

China, where novel coronavirus outbreak took place first in December, decided to cremate the bodies. In many cases, bodies of Covid-19 patients were cremated immediately after the death and even in the absence of family members without giving any consideration of the religious belief of the coronavirus victim. In India, the Union Health Ministry allows both burial and cremation of the dead body in the manner wished, if at all, expressed by the victim or her family. The guidelines say that the body would be handled by a trained health professional, who must be wearing full personal protective equipment (PPE). The dead body should be placed in a leak-proof plastic body bag, the exterior of which can be decontaminated with 1 per cent hypochlorite. The body bag can be wrapped with a mortuary sheet or sheet provided by the family members. Unzipping of bag for viewing face of the dead person is allowed. Nose and mouth of the body should be plugged to prevent oozing out of any body fluid. But the body cannot be bathed, kissed or hugged. Family members - not in large numbers - are allowed to read religious prayers or sprinkle holy water according to their belief but without touching the body. Embalming of the body is also prohibited. Thus managed, the body of a Covid-19 patient can be either buried or cremated.

In this backdrop, it is high time for the state government to consider framing a SOP for disposal of Covid-19-related dead bodies.

First Published:July 30, 2020, 7:12 a.m.

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