Nov 13, 2020

UN Resident Coordinator writes to PM on burial of Covid-19 victims

UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka -  Ms. Hanaa Singer has written to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa with regard to the matter of burying Covid-19 victims.

At the present, cremation is stipulated as the only method for disposing bodies suspected of COVID-19 infection and the issue had been the centre of much debate recently.

Copies of the letters have been directed to minister of Foreign Affairs - Dinesh Gunawardena and Minister of Health - Pavithra Wanniarachchi.

“I am following with encouragement recent media reports that the current prohibition of burials of COVID-19 victims in Sri Lanka could be revisited shortly. In this context, I wish to take the opportunity to reiterate the concerns of the United Nations with the existing Ministry of Health guidelines, which stipulate cremation as the only method for the disposal of bodies suspected of COVID-19 infection,” she said in the letter.

She notes that the World Health Organization, in its 24 March 2020 and subsequent updated interim guidance on 4 September 2020 on the “Infection prevention and control for the safe management of a dead body in the context of COVID-19”, notes that based on current knowledge of the symptoms of COVID-19 and its main modes of transmission (droplet/contact), the likelihood of transmission when handling human remains is low.

“The common assumption that people who died of a communicable disease should be cremated to prevent spread is not supported by evidence. Instead, cremation is a matter of cultural choice and available resources,” she added.

According to World Health Organization guidance, people who have died from COVID-19 can therefore be buried or cremated according to local standards and family preferences, with appropriate protocols for handling the body.

“In the same context, I deem it important to inform you that I have received impassioned appeals from within and outside the Muslim community that perceive the current policy on burials as discriminatory. Against this background, I fear that not allowing burials is having a negative effect on social cohesion and, more importantly, could also adversely impact the measures for containing the spread of the virus as it may discourage people to access medical care when they have symptoms or history of contact,” she added.

Admitting that Governments often need to take difficult and at times unpopular measures during epidemics, for reasons of public health. However, in this case, 'the negative consequences of not allowing burials seem to outweigh any potential epidemiological benefit,' she says.

“Considering the evidenced-based guidance of the World Health Organization, as well as the commitments of the Government of Sri Lanka to respect and uphold the rights of all communities, I therefore express my hope that the existing policy be revised so as to allow the safe and dignified burial of COVID-19 victims,” she had further said.

UN Letter 13 11 20