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Burying the ‘resurrection’ of Covid-19 cremations

Burying the ‘resurrection’ of Covid-19 cremations

20 Jul 2023

Bringing to the surface this week a topic that has been discussed on many previous occasions without reaching any conclusion, Samagi Jana Balawegaya Opposition Parliamentarian and Sri Lanka Muslim Congress Leader, attorney Rauff Hakeem expressed that legal actions should be taken against the officials of the Health Ministry and also the members of the expert committee appointed by former Health Minister, attorney Pavithra Wanniarachchi who advised the former Government to cremate the bodies of those who died due to Covid-19 in the early stage of the pandemic in Sri Lanka. Hakeem is of the opinion that those officials have put Islam in disgrace by directing the authorities to cremate the bodies of Muslims who died due to Covid-19, which he claims is never accepted in that religion. Adding that those officials should be prosecuted under the laws against hateful conduct, MP Hakeem questioned what the incumbent Health Minister Keheliya Rambukwella would do to address this concern.

The muslim community in Sri Lanka was deeply saddened by the government’s decision, one that was maintained despite significant opposition.  Hakeem has every right to express his opinion about a community that he represents, but his arguments are biased. A number of activists appearing for the Muslim community, kept claiming that Muslims were discriminated, due to the said decision, and that decision targeted Muslims. However, in reality, it was a decision that was applicable to all Sri Lankans alike, and not to a specific community. Death of one's loved ones and religious harmony is a sensitive issue, and more so in Sri Lanka which has seen race and religion based conflicts and faultlines for a better part of our post independence history, as such criticism such as the one made by Hakeem, need to be done sensitivity and with evidence. 

We must acknowledge that the then Government should also shoulder some of the blame. As the covid pandemic grew and evidence became more available, the state was slow to act to review the decision it had taken. And despite the increase in knowledge about the virus and details about evolving  international best practices becoming available, the Government unnecessarily took too much time to accept that the option of burial can also be allowed. That decision not being made, despite evidence, until significant public and international pressure was exerted,  is concerning. That is a question which the authorities should answer.  

If the situation was viewed from the reality that existed back in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit Sri Lanka, such a decision was taken in such a backdrop. That is, instead of accurate and updated knowledge about Covid-19, what was at hand back then was misconceptions, and nationwide fear. In 2020, not only Sri Lanka, but even developed countries and international health bodies had very limited knowledge about the Covid-19 pandemic, including about how the virus spreads and affects people in the long run. In such a context, every country had to be extremely careful so as not to leave any room for the further spread of the Virus. That is when the health authorities decided to make it mandatory to cremate the bodies of not only Muslims, but every citizen, who succumbed to the Covid-19 virus. Based on knowledge and clarity that did not exist back then but exists today, we cannot take the authorities’ decision out of the context in which it was made.

The health authorities were in a very difficult situation where they had to prioritise public health and the citizens’ fundamental rights over religious concerns. In fact, the task entrusted with the said expert committee was to make a ‘scientific’ decision based on the information that they had back then, not to make a religious decision. In a context where there were various vague concerns about the spread of the Virus, they cannot be blamed for the decision that they may have made in good faith. Furthermore, it must be recalled that although the World Health Organisation had recommended both cremation and burial as options, the final decision was made and was to be made by individual States. The Sri Lankan Government did the same. It is true that Articles 10 and 14 of the Constitution guarantee the freedoms pertaining to religions and beliefs. At the same time, Article 15 restricts fundamental rights in exceptional cases, which the Government has to take into account when a decision to be made pertaining to the lives of an entire nation. It is with that same logic that the people’s right to movement was restricted through lockdowns and curfews.

It should not be forgotten that at the time, the country had to look at containing the spread of a virus from a broader viewpoint, without being confined or attributed to mere religious sentiments. MP Hakeem and others who made the allegations should also realise that such allegations, which question scientific and fact based decision, with claims of a religious witch-hunt, are quite capable of inciting religious and ethnic rifts within an already fragile social fabric. 

If there is  legitimate evidence about the initial decision being taken with ill-intent towards any community, that should be exposed. Beyond religious sentiments, every person has an opinion about how they want their dead bodies to be deposed of. Even the Catholic Church had back then stated that it too was concerned about this mandatory cremation rule, although it decided not to blow it out of proportion, because there was a national health crisis, which had to be prioritised before religious sentiments.

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