Another nail in the coffin for religious tolerance in Sri Lanka- S.M.M.Bazeer
This SOP followed by Provisional Clinical Practice Guidelines (PCPG) on COVID-19 issued by the Ministry of Health on 27 March, in collaboration with Ceylon College of Physicians and Epidemiologists, setting out in clear terms without any ambiguity that COVID-19 victims can also be buried but “the grave should be a depth of six feet and it should not contaminate with ground-water; and the grave should be identifiable and traceable”.
Given the extreme risk of the virus, representatives of the Muslim community waived certain rituals prior to burial but insisted on the burial in line with their religious belief and practice. This is not an exclusive nor exceptional request put forward by the Muslims of Sri Lanka but an international norm accepted by all other countries where Muslims live as minorities. These national guidelines soothed the Muslims community so that they praised the governments for taking on board their concerns about their religious rights/rites. Nonetheless, a couple of days later, on 29 March, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, the Director General of Health Services who is the Spokesperson for the Ministry of Health, appeared on a local TV channel. He confirmed the burial option of those who succumbed to COVID-19, according to the international quarantine regulations, and PCPG.
It is common knowledge that burial is allowed under international quarantine law and WHO guidelines. However he went further to recommend cremation whilst allowing burial of eight feet underground. This was slightly different from the existing guidelines with regard to the depth of a six-foot grave. This proved that he was the ultimate authority on the issue of burial or cremation.
It later became much clearer when GMOA wrote to him to “decide the best cause of action with regard to the disposal of bodies of those who die of COVID-19, in consultation with the experts”.
This again was reinforced by a statement of a GMOA Spokesperson, Dr. Ravindra Zoysa, that the DGHS is the deciding authority to issue the final ruling on this matter. Day by day it becomes much clearer that DGHS is the sole authority to make decisions whilst the Government is passing the buck to the experts.
It is preposterous to seek expert advice on the issue of burial which was existing in the previous PCPG, and prepared by 14 experts of various medical and clinical disciplines amended overnight without any explicable reasons. None of the experts who were in the making of the guidelines were from minority communities except an editorial assistant, Dr. Azhar Ghouse, who would have had no say at all in terms of the issues set out in the guidelines.
It is in this background Mohamed Jamal, the first COVID-19 victim, passed away at Negombo General Hospital on 30 March, before PCPG on COVID-19 were revised to expunge burials. In the early hours of 31 March at around 12:30 a.m., Mohamed Jamal was cremated, and in that the very same morning, the PCPG was amended to reflect only cremation to every victim of COVID-19. The timely amending of the PCPG to coincide with the date of the burial raises suitable concerns; was it just a coincidence or concomitant?
On that fateful night, when the dead were transported for cremation, the writer contacted some SLPP Muslims in Colombo, who could encourage the hierarchy of the Government to intervene in stopping cremation. All their efforts – including the last minute interference of Ali Sabri PC with top Government officials – failed and the local health authority had its final decision executed with, of course, some approval from the above. It is unfortunate that the Muslims had to mainly rely on a single individual, Ali Sabri, PC to politically intercede with the higher-ups and encourage consideration of Sri Lankan Muslims, to stop cremation at the eleventh hour. SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem and some other Muslims dignitaries had to come up with a different reason, such as difficulties in digging a 10-foot grave or transporting the body to Colombo due to jurisdiction issues. It is distressing and painful for all Sri Lankan Muslims, both within Sri Lanka and the diaspora, who had enjoyed their religious practices and observances within a multi-religious environment.
One of the sons of the deceased confirmed that the MOH of Negombo Hospital had notified him of his father’s death and agreed to have him buried but then later claimed that he could not contact him as his phone was switched off. That is subject to strict proof and scrutiny, considering that the MOH later claimed that he was advised by the Director to cremate the body. It became clearer as to who ordered the cremation despite guidelines allowing burial.
This indicates that those who were involved in the decision of cremation sought to set the precedent for future cremation. This was a flagrant violation of guidelines in force and if the DGHS ordered the carrying out of the cremation, he should be held accountable for such a breach. The DGHS is of the opinion that the experts in various parts of the world such as USA, UK and Singapore are substandard to Sri Lankan experts in making a dissimilar finding that the COVID-19 victims should only be cremated rather than buried.
By way of example, the UK’s Coronavirus Bill was successfully amended overwhelmingly by Parliamentarians from many backgrounds to ensure the appropriate burial for those of Muslim and Jewish faith by preventing cremation. The amendment was included in the bill and passed legislation, demonstrating compassion and commitment to the Muslims and Jewish minorities.
The minority Muslims who constitute 4.8% of the total population of 64.6 million, had been able to table an amendment Under Part 3 of this schedule (27), such that Bill states: “Local authorities and the appropriate national authorities must have regard to the desirability of disposing of a dead person’s body or other remains, in accordance with the person’s wishes, if known, or otherwise in a way that appears consistent with the person’s religion or beliefs, if known.”
As in the public domain now, the first COVID-19 victim was cremated against the wish of the family and in violation of the option provided in the PCPG by the authorities. Those who wanted to go ahead with the burial seemed eager to set a misguided and authoritarian precedent, one that deeply violates the faith and practice of Sri Lankan Muslims. Following the cremation, several anecdotes have emerged from various quarters of vested interest relating to the burial, some of which clearly demonstrate the culpability of the authorities.