As the world continues to battle the current pandemic, many are using several methods as means of decreasing its rapid spread. Some follow the WHO scientifically proven safety guidelines while others don’t.  Thus,  in March last year, Sri Lanka started forcing the cremation of victims of COVID-19. Not only does this practice ignore the World Health Organization’s guidelines, but it also stands against the beliefs of the country’s Muslims and other minority populations. Thus, the United Nations is urging the Sri Lankan government to halt its policy. 

Immediate cremation

The report also highlights the fast emploitation of the policy. According to trusted resources, the cremation is taking place right after receiving positive testing. Thus, family and relatives aren’t given a reasonable time or the opportunity to cross-check. Many even barely received the final test results before officials implement the policy against their will.

 A human rights violation

Human rights experts are condemning this policy while fearing its long term consequences. “The imposition of cremation as the only option for handling the bodies confirmed or suspected of COVID-19 amounts to a human rights violation. There has been no established medical or scientific evidence in Sri Lanka or other countries that burial of dead bodies leads to increased risk of spreading communicable diseases such as COVID-19,” said the experts.

No scientific reason

Till now, no study was able to prove that cremation can prevent the spread of the virus. However, the country established this policy based on the claim of a chief epidemiologist. He announced that burials could contaminate ground drinking water. The claim is yet to be proven false or true. Furthermore, the College of Community Physicians of Sri Lanka and the Sri Lanka Medical Association offered statements recently that shake the basis of this policy. They agreed with the World Health Organization that there is no proof that the burial of COVID-19 dead bodies constitutes a public health hazard.

“While we must be alert to the serious public health challenges posed by the pandemic, COVID-19 measures must respect and protect the dignity of the dead, their cultural and religious traditions or beliefs, and their families throughout,” the experts said.

Discriminating instead of uniting

The current policy is building a rift between communities instead of uniting the entire nation against a common enemy. Though Muslims only account for 10 percent of the Siri Lankan population, they have often had a strained relationship with the majority of Sinhala Buddhists. Thus, many are fearing that the current policy is the fruition of some existing prejudice. Moreover, the policy will probably play a prominent role in deterring people from seeking healthcare over “fears of discrimination”, per the UN statement. 

“We deplore the implementation of such public health decisions based on discrimination, aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism amounting to the persecution of Muslims and other minorities in the country,” added the experts. “Such hostility against the minorities exacerbates existing prejudices, intercommunal tensions, and religious intolerance, sowing fear and distrust while inciting further hatred and violence.”

“We are equally concerned that such a policy deters the poor and the most vulnerable from accessing public healthcare over fears of discrimination,” the experts said, adding “this would further negatively impact the public health measures to contain the pandemic.”

Therefore, instead of aiding in the fight against the virus, the policy will end up only serving the other side. 

The UN’s humanitarian call

Though both the President and Prime Minister had asked the health authorities to explore other burial options in Sri Lanka, nothing changed. “We are concerned to learn that the recommendation to include both cremation and burial options for the disposal of bodies of COVID-19 victims by a panel of experts appointed by the State Minister for Primary Health Services, Pandemics and COVID Prevention was reportedly disregarded by the Government,” they said.

“We hope that the report of local burial options by the main committee referred to by the Health Minister will be available soon and that the authorities will stop pursuing a burial solution in a foreign country.

“We strongly urge the Government of Sri Lanka to stop the forced cremation of COVID-19 bodies, to take all necessary measures to combat disinformation, hate speech, and stigmatization of the Muslims and other minorities as a vector of the pandemic; and to provide remedy and ensure accountability for cremations that were carried out by error.”

References:

Al Jazeera. (2021, January 25). Sri Lanka’s cremation of COVID dead a ‘human rights violation.’ Coronavirus Pandemic News | Al Jazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/1/25/forced-cremations-during-pandemic-a-violation-of-human-rights-unOHCHR | Sri Lanka: Compulsory cremation of COVID-19 bodies cannot continue, say UN experts. (n.d.). Ohchr. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=26686&LangID=ESri Lanka: ‘Forced’ cremation of COVID victims’ bodies must stop – UN. (2021, January 27). UN News. https://news.un.org/en/story/2021/01/1082882