News

An island for Covid burials 

  • Mainland burial ruled out: Gen. Silva

  • Implementation within 48 hours after finalising guidelines

 

The Government is set to allocate an island for the burial of Covid-19 victims’ bodies, following the issuance of the gazette notification permitting burial last Thursday (25).

“We will be doing the burials on an island. It will definitely not be in the main part of the country. We are making arrangements to do that,” Head of the National Operations Centre for the Prevention of the Covid-19 Outbreak (NOCPCO) Gen. Shavendra Silva told The Morning yesterday (1).

A meeting had taken place with the Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr. Asela Gunawardena yesterday regarding the issue.

According to Gen. Silva, the Government is in the process of finalising the health guidelines in this regard. “After finalising the health guidelines, we will be able to implement the decision within 48 hours of the finalisation,” he said.

The Government, on 25 February, released a notification permitting burial at designated cemeteries under the supervision of health authorities and in accordance with the directions issued by the DGHS.

In March last year, the Government imposed regulations that said that the bodies of Covid-19 victims could only be cremated. The rules banned burial, saying that the virus could spread by contaminating groundwater.

But Muslim groups insisted that the Government’s decision had no scientific basis and wanted the ban lifted as cremating a body went against their Islamic faith.

Muslim Parliamentarians urged Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was visiting the country, to take up the issue with the Sri Lankan political leaders.

In response to the policy change, Khan thanked his Sri Lankan counterparts by tweeting: “I thank the Sri Lankan leadership and welcome the Sri Lankan Government’s official notification allowing the burial option for those who died of Covid-19.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance on the proper disposal of Covid-19 deceased permits both burial and cremation, and Sri Lanka was one of the few countries that had a mandatory cremation policy in place.

International groups including the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), the European Union (EU), Amnesty International, and the United Nations (UN) had also sent repeated requests to Colombo to reconsider its decision.

“The imposition of cremation as the only option for handling the bodies that were 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 UN experts, in a statement in January.

The change in the Government’s long-standing policy came one day after the departure of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, who was on a two-day state visit to Sri Lanka. The Morning exclusively reported that Khan received “positive” responses from both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa when he had raised the issue of allowing the bodies of Muslim Covid-19 victims to be buried.

The decision also comes during the 46th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), where the Permanent Missions of the UK, Canada, Germany, Montenegro, and North Macedonia – countries that form the Core Group of Countries for Sri Lanka – is submitting a resolution on Sri Lanka.

It is understood that the Government of Sri Lanka is counting on the support of the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation (OIC) countries, which includes Pakistan, in defeating this resolution. On 23 February, OIC Secretary General Yousef Al Othaimeen raised the issue of mandatory cremation of Covid-19 victims in Sri Lanka in his speech made to the UNHRC Session. Therefore, the change in policy may have been towards securing OIC support, even though there has been no such official attribution by the Government.