There were many rumours and misinformation on social media platforms prior to March 2020 on how the body of a suspected or confirmed case of Corona virus victim is cremated or buried. Government of India Ministry of Health & Family Welfare issued guidelines on dead body management on 15.03.2020. Some of the key points are as follows:
* Standard precautions to be followed by health care workers while handling dead bodies of COVID victims.
* Training in infection and prevention control practices.
* Removal of the body from the isolation room or area.
* Environmental cleaning and disinfection and how to handle.
* Handling of dead body in mortuary.
* At the crematorium/burial ground.
With regard to the last point, MOHFW guidelines clearly mentions: “Before packing the dead body, it should be cleaned and disinfected using sterilizing agent based on 70% alcohol or 1% Sodium Hypochlorite. The body bag should be either wrapped with mortuary sheet or placed in an opaque body bag (on my initiative J&KMSCL has already supplied to GMC)”.
The guidelines further state: “viewing of the dead body by unzipping the face end of the body nag (by the staff using standard precautions) may be allowed, for the relatives to see the body for last time. Religious rituals such as reading from religious scripts, sprinkling holy water and any other last rites that does not require touching of the body can be allowed. Bathing, kissing, hugging etc of the dead body should not be allowed and family members should perform hand hygiene after cremation/burial”.
Furthermore World Health Organization (WHO) in its interim guidance on infection prevention and control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19 dated 4th September 2020 also stated: “The dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions and their families should be respected and protected”.
All measures should respect the dignity of the dead including avoiding hasty disposal of the body of the person who has died of COVID-19.
The Calcutta High Court in WPA 5479 with IA No. CAN/1/2020 title Vineet Ruia Versus Principal Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Govt. of West Bengal and Others also stated on 16.09.2020 that the right to dignity and fair treatment under Article 21 of the Constitution is not only available to a living person but also to his mortal remains after his demise. Disposal of a human body, whether or not the person dies of COVID-19, whether by cremation or burial, should be done with due respect and solemness. We also agree that the near and dear ones of a deceased person who had contracted COVID-19 should have an opportunity to have final look at the human remains of the person and to pay their last respect and homage to the departed soul.
The court further stated: “We also do not see that the legislative purpose and intention behind putting the Disaster Management Act, 2005 in place is to provide a piece of legislation which could be treated as annihilative in nature. The whole concept of Disaster Management and the regulatory provisions which can be generated within the domain of Disaster Management Laws are to be treated, understood and applied as shield to energise and enable better governance in the wake of disaster by following preventive management, protective management and post disaster curative management of all such situations”.
“In this spectrum of reasoning, the constitutional aspirations of the people in a civilized society cannot be discounted except when and unless it becomes disorderly behavior which would infract the public order, morality and health”, the court further said, adding “we have referred to these provisions of law only to show that the legislature has imposed duties on the local self-government institutions to maintain hygiene in the public domain and has empowered such institutions to take appropriate measures to combat the menace of an epidemic or deadly disease”.
However, these powers must be exercised by the donees of such powers responsibly and by ensuring that the rights of citizen which are recognized by law are not jeopardized or curtailed unnecessarily. We are of the firm view that the right of family of a COVID-19 victim to perform the last rites before the cremation/burial of the deceased person is a right akin to Fundamental Right within the meaning of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
While exercising their power to impose restrictions on citizens in their way of life in the wake of outbreak of pandemic like COVID-19, a fine balance must be struck by the state and the local self government institutions so that the aforesaid right of a citizen to perform the obsequies of his near and dear ones does not stand abridged or abrogated excepting for very compelling reason.
“Having given our anxious consideration to issue in hand, we have come to conclusion that the immediate family members of Covid-19 victims be permitted to perform the funeral rites of the deceased subject to them following certain precautionary guidelines to eliminate/minimize the risk of them becoming infected by the deadly virus which has caused devastation in the form of loss of countless lives across the world”, the Calcutta High Court had mentioned in the judgment.
The order/directions issued by DDMA/DM of various districts of JK UT for cremation of dead bodies of Corona victims are contrary to the guidelines issued by MOHFW. Direction (E) of the order states: “His/her relatives and other family members (not more than 4 in number) can participate in the cremation from a distance of 50 feet (15.24 mtrs)”. It is surprising that when almost every research and guidelines issued by WHO, MOHFW suggest to maintain at least 2 mtr distance between yourself and others to reduce your risk of infection as the virus mainly spreads when someone breathes, talks, coughs or sneeze, which sends tiny droplets into the air but it is hard to digest how dead can spread virus up to the distance of 50 feets when he doesn’t sneeze, breathes or cough. I have also send my representation on the issue to Lt Governor JKUT Manoj Sinha on 01.05.2021 with the request to direct Chief Secretary JK UT to immediately make amendments in the orders issued by Chairman District Disaster Management Chairman Authority (DDMA)/ DMs of all districts of JK UT to make compliance of the guidelines issued by MOHFW, WHO & AIIMS and issue uniform guidance for every district of JK UT and allow at least 4-5 near and dear ones of the deceased to view the dead body/face for one last time before cremation/burial and allow to perform religious rituals as per their beliefs.
(The author is RTI/Social Activist)