Losing a loved one is one of the most difficult things we have to go through in life, even under the best of circumstances.
But the nature and sheer scale of the current coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic now brought a number of questions with regard to how the government has handled burials of victims, with experts now condemning the Health Ministry for violating the dignity of the dead.
Global burial rituals are being dramatically changed by the coronavirus pandemic.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) in its March 24 guidance on burials of Covid-19 victims said that dead bodies are generally not infectious.
However, it recommends that relatives should not touch or kiss the body.
This, coupled with the Health Ministry’s directives that local health authorities should designate a team to oversee the process and that a maximum of only 15 people, strictly adhering to the social distancing, will be allowed at the funeral of their loved one, have upended important death and burial rituals.
The Health ministry notes that to avoid community practices that would result in more infections through contact, bodies of people who have died of, or suspected to have died of Covid-19, should be handled by a public health official.
The step-by-step guidelines contained in the interim guidance for safe transportation of human remains are intended to protect workers involved in the burial, right from the mortuary to the place of final disposition, the Ministry notes.
But experts have questioned the manner in which these procedures have been implemented as many say the government has blatantly violated the dignity of the dead.
“Being buried at night is synonymous with being buried like a thief. Everybody is entitled to a decent burial and families have a right to mourn,” said Dr Richard Ayah, a health systems and policy expert.
Since the spine-chilling viral video of the burial of the eighth Covid-19 victim in Siaya County surfaced, two more victims in Bomet and Trans Nzoia counties have been buried in what Dr Ayah termed inhumane manner.
Families of three Covid-19 patients who have been buried by health officials donned in personal protective gear have decried the manner in which their kin have been buried, alleging that the government did not let them have a say in the burials.
At the same time, Prof Lukoye Atwoli reiterates that the dead people ought to be treated with respect no matter what they die from.
Every effort must be made to accord the necessary dignity and respect to those who die from Covid-19 and to allow, as much as possible, the family wishes on how the burial should be conducted within the bounds of public health.
“Whereas we agree that the deceased should be buried as fast as possible within 48 hours, we shouldn’t engage in a process that increases stigma like rushing to bury people at night,” the associate professor at Moi Universitys School of Medicine and the vice-president of the Kenya Medical Association noted.
As the number of Covid-19 deaths continue to rise in the country, with 50 deaths having been recorded in Kenya so far, experts are calling on the government to come up with guidelines that will ensure that the dead are given their last respects.
While all precautions must be taken in ensuring no one is exposed in case there is a death, what appears to be bothering Kenyans who watched the Siaya video is the treatment that the body was accorded, and whether this is how the rest of the Covid-19 deaths have been treated or will be treated.
“While we appreciate that infection prevention measures should be adhered to, we are asking the ministry to incorporate the expertise of sociologists and come up with proper guidelines that factor in the cultural aspects of our people. For instance, people in western Kenya bury their elderly in the afternoon and children in the morning,” explained Dr Ayah.
Because Covid-19 is primarily spread through respiratory droplets when people cough, sneeze or talk, it is less likely to be passed on by a dead body – although now we know that transmission is technically possible.
To date, the WHO says there is no evidence of persons having been infected from exposure to the bodies of those who died of Covid-19.
Further, Dr Ayah points out that very few health officials have been trained on how to carry out a dignified burial.
“In Kenya, I think it’s only the military that know how to perform these ceremonies. The government is never involved in burials, so very few people have the technical know-how,” added Dr Ayah.
In April, the Ministry of Health came up with two conflicting regulations within days of each other regarding how burial and cremation ceremonies should be undertaken.
The public health (prevention, control, and suppression of Covid-19) rules, 2020 of April 3 state that these ceremonies should be conducted between 9am and 3pm.
But on April 6, a Kenya Gazette Special Issue Supplement No. 41 stated that where a person infected with Covid-19 dies, the body shall be interred or cremated within 48 hours from the time of death.
“I don’t understand why people are being buried at night. They (the Health ministry) keep contradicting themselves. The conflicting regulations go to show how failure to have clear communication continues to promote stigma,” said Allan Maleche, a human rights lawyer and the executive director of the Kenya Legal & Ethical Issues Network on HIV/Aids (KELIN).
Director-General of Health Patrick Amoth recently insisted that the ministry had customised the WHO guidelines which outline how Covid-19 victims should be buried. But he noted that the rushed burials conducted at night have been carried out in counties which are still ill-prepared.
“We discourage burials at night and have advised them on what to do while being cognisant of cultural practices, so take it up with the counties,” Dr Amoth said in response to queries on the matter.