News

Covid burial to be permitted

  • Near 11-month mandatory cremation policy to end

  • Decision comes after Pak PM’s visit and amidst UNHRC sessions

 

The Morning News Desk

 

Ending a highly controversial mandatory cremation policy that was in place for 11 months, the Government yesterday (25) decided to permit the burial of Covid-19 deceased, The Morning learnt.

Health Ministry sources told us that the approval of Minister of Health Pavithra Wanniarachchi has been received for this change in policy. At the time of writing, our sources at the Department of Government Printing had confirmed that the gazette notification in this regard was to be sent to the Department, although it had not yet been received.

It is understood that permission has been granted subjected to certain conditions, which were not immediately clear. 

The gazette notification that all bodies of victims who died as a result of Covid-19 would be cremated was issued in early April last year, leading to an outcry by the Muslim community in Sri Lanka.

The United Nations (UN) and human rights activists, both local and international, had long urged that the mandatory cremation policy be ended.

“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 UN experts in a statement last month.

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

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 yesterday 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.

Speaking to The Morning, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Mujibur Rahman said that Prime Minister Khan had informed this to both Government and Opposition Muslim MPs when he met them on Wednesday. 

“Khan said that he received positive responses from the President and Prime Minister when he raised the issue of the mandatory cremation of Muslim Covid-19 deceased, with them. It was indicated that the President and Prime Minister had said that it would be allowed.” 

According to Rahman, Khan had said that the fact that the burial of Covid-19 victims is not allowed in Sri Lanka – when other countries have allowed it – is an issue. 

The decision also comes during the 46th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council, where the Permanent Missions of the UK, Canada, Germany, Montenegro, and North Macedonia – countries that form the Core Group of Countries for Sri Lanka, which is expected to submit 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, and the change in policy may have been towards achieving that end.

On Tuesday (23), 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.

In his speech during the High Level Segment of the session, the OIC Secretary General said their organisation is keenly monitoring the situation of Muslim communities within non-OIC members. 

“In this regard, the OIC is concerned with the situation of the Muslims of Sri Lanka, as they are denied the right to bury the bodies of the Covid victims following the Islamic rule, while adhering to the guidelines of the WHO. The OIC urges the Government of Sri Lanka to take swift action to guarantee and respect the right of burial of the Muslim community.”