FEAR when combined with falsehood and insular inward-looking nationalism make a potent combination that can lead to the brutalisation of society in the short term and possible disaster in the longer term. Sri Lanka is gaining international notoriety on this account. The issue of enforced cremation of those who die of COVID-19, or are suspected of it as a possible cause of death, has shocked the sensibilities of the world to the extent that four UN special rapporteurs have called on Sri Lanka to permit burial of such fatalities. Significantly, these were the special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; the special rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health; the special rapporteur on minority issues; and the special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism.
Sri Lanka, more than any other country, has seen shameless manifestations of populist irrationality by government leaders to protect against the depredations of the novel coronavirus, such as the throwing of pots into rivers and drinking of elixirs that have no base in science. In such a context, the desire for self-protection can go to extreme lengths at other levels also. Especially after the COVID-19 cluster that originated from the central fish market in Colombo, the fear that fish are contaminated has continued to grow. A leading business magnate said that his workers who invited him to a meal had assured him that they would not serve fish. They explained that they had heard that in faraway China that COVID-19 infected bodies were being dumped into the sea and consumed by the fish.
Some of these fears might be dismissed as peccadillos of less educated people if not for the acts of brutality that can emerge. An incident that captured the centre stage recently was the prison riot that killed at least 11 persons when prisoners demanded COVID-19 tests be done to separate those infected with COVID-19 from those who were free of it. A gesture of care to those imprisoned, many of them in remand prior to trial, might have cooled tempers. Instead the riot was put down with extreme brutality as many of those who died had been shot. The failure of the state to protect those in its custody is not a new phenomenon. One of the most infamous was in 1983 when many of those incarcerated for being part of the Tamil militant movements were killed during another prison riot.
THERE are also the pathetic accounts of bereaved families of COVID-19 patients being treated harshly which act as a disincentive to people to test whether they or their families have got infected by the virus. The latest is the story of the 20 day old infant who was cremated at short notice without being shown to the parents or obtaining their assent in circumstances where neither of the parents tested positive for COVID-19. The practice of cremating victims of COVID-19 without giving the families access to the bodies is proving to be counterproductive. There are an increasing number of examples where people are defying the health authorities who come to their areas to check them. This is a self-defeating prospect both for them and the country at large.
The reluctance of people to get themselves checked is mainly due to their fear that they will be taken away and may end up being cremated without any relative being present. But this will increase the possibility of COVID-19 spread which cremation is meant to minimise. Instead of looking at the problem rationally, the issue of enforced cremation of those who have tested positive and not survived has become a divisive political issue. Instead of unifying the people of the country to minimise the spread of COVID-19 by joining together in sharing information with the government, the enforced cremation of COVID-19 victims has distanced the communities. In particular it will have the effect of inducing those in the Muslim community to actively conceal cases of infection for fear that their loved ones may be cremated and subjected to eternal damnation according to their belief.
It now appears that the government leadership who stoked up ethnic fears and rode the wave of ethnic nationalism to come to power are attempting to take their foot off the accelerator. Whether they will be permitted to do so is the question. It was reported that prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had shown impatience when the committee appointed by the government more than six months ago to give an answer to the safety of COVID-19 burials had asked for more time. On previous occasions those politicians who succeeded in rousing up nationalism and riding its wave to power paid heavily for their politically opportunistic and morally reprehensible conduct. Prime minister SWRD Bandaranaike in 1957 and opposition leader Appapillai Amirthalingam in 1989 paid the supreme price for trying to put the genie back in the bottle.
FROM the time the first COVID-19 death was reported in Sri Lanka in March this year, the government’s policy has been to cremate COVID-19 victims. This has been a source of unusual controversy as it goes against both science and religion. Islam in particular requires the burial of all human beings who die regardless of the circumstances of death. The World Health Organisation’s COVID-19 guidelines permit burial of COVID-19 victims. The country’s Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has stated that the mandatory requirement for cremation imposed under the health guidelines is not a valid restriction and that the government should amend the regulations to ensure compatibility with the Sri Lanka constitution and international obligations.
However, the health authorities continue to take the position that COVID-19 burial is not permissible due to the threat to the health and safety of the larger population as it leads to the possibility of groundwater contamination. The steep rise in COVID-19 infections due to the difficulties in controlling people-to-people spread of this highly infectious disease has brought into question the efficacy of Sri Lanka’s strategy to contain the spread of COVID-19 infection. The enforced cremation of COVID-19 victims should not be part of a viable strategy of containment especially as it is a source of great distress to the members of the Muslim and Christian communities to whom burial is an honouring of their faith. There are reports of vulnerable members of the Muslim community leaving the country due to their fear of being eternally damned by cremation. More recently the Maldivian government has offered space in its own tiny county for burial of Muslims who have died of COVID-19 and are threatened with cremation.
At the present time the government’s leadership is reported to be willing to consider the burial of COVID-19 victims in specially located sites which would pose no risk of groundwater contamination. There is a need to face down the forces of extreme ethnic nationalism and irrationality. The sooner this is done the more possible it will be for president Gotabaya Rajapaksa who has frequently reiterated that he will ensure justice and equal treatment to all sections of the people to claim the mantle of being a statesman. In his address to the nation the president said that ‘An administration that protects the rights of all citizens regardless of racial or religious differences will be established during my tenure.’ The end of forcible COVID-19 cremation is a test of statesmanlike governance and whether science and rationality prevail over irrationality and superstition which is liable to doom Sri Lanka to further years of internal strife.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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