At the crematorium. (Express photo by Divya Goyal)
The fear of handling bodies of COVID-19 victims is proving no less contagious than the virus itself. After a 69-year-old woman died due to the infection at 2.30 pm on Sunday at Fortis hospital in Ludhiana, not only did the family refuse to claim her body, but it also kept a safe distance from her final rites by declining to step inside the cremation ground.
The 69-year-old’s body was claimed by the district administration and the cremation performed with their assistance after repeated requests to the family to step forward were cold-shouldered.
The body was claimed by officer-on-duty, Tehsildar-cum-sub-registrar Jagsir Singh after the family flatly refused to do so and the funeral pyre was lit by sewadar at the cremation ground wearing proper protective gear. It was only after repeated requests by officials and several follow-up phone calls that three members of the family, including the daughter and the son-in-law according to the police, arrived at the cremation ground but kept waiting outside in their car.
Speaking to The Indian Express, Jagsir Singh, said, “What happened was heartbreaking and shocking for us too. For hours, her family did not come to claim the body at Fortis Hospital. There was bill of Rs 3.5 lakh which they said that they will not pay and we agreed. The Deputy Commissioner ordered that administration will clear the bill but at least family should claim body for last rites but they refused to do that also. Till nearly 5 pm, we kept waiting that someone from family will claim the body but they did not arrive at the hospital... I reached the hospital and claimed body on administration’s behalf.”
The body was then taken to the cremation ground, nearest to woman’s residence in Shimlapuri area. The family then was called again for the final rites.
“We kept waiting. We even made a doctor speak to the family and counsel them that dead bodies do not spread infection, but they did not budge.
After hours of wait around 8.30 pm, three members of her family finally came and kept sitting outside in a car. We told them that all officials, including myself and police, and even cremation ground workers are here. There is no risk of infection because the body is properly well-packed in zipbag by hospital authorities, but they did not listen. They were treating the body like an unclaimed or unidentified one, as if they did not know their own mother. They clearly said that body is responsibility of administration and it doesn’t matter to them if it is cremated or not,” said Jagsir Singh.
After all efforts to convince family failed, the administration made a cremation ground worker wear a protective suit and light the pyre at around 10 pm.
“He (the sewadar) did not refuse once. Even after we told him that it was coronavirus case, he readily agreed. We made him wear proper safety gear and then finally the pyre was lit but the woman’s own family did not even enter inside cremation ground. We could not believe what we were seeing. Even after the two health workers from hospital put the packed body on pyre, family refused to perform last rites. When we asked them the reason, they did not say anything. They just kept saying that we won’t go near the body and that it is the responsibility of administration,” said Jagsir Singh.
ADC Iqbal Singh Sandhu said: “We told the family that we will make them wear a safety suit and sanitise them properly. But they kept sitting 100 metres away from the cremation ground in their car. It is really unfortunate.” The ADC added that three officials, including himself, SDM Amarinder Singh Malhi and DPRO Prabhdeep Singh Dhaliwal, will be performing antim ardas ritual at Baba Deep Singh Gurdwara on Saturday using their own funds.
The 69-year-old lived with her one son in Shimlapuri, while her second son lives in Canada. She is also survived by a daughter. The woman had gone to her niece’s house in Mohali on March 17 where she fell sick on March 23 and was shifted to Fortis, Ludhiana on March 30. She died on Sunday due to cardiac arrest.
Sub-Inspector Simranjit Kaur, a police official on duty from Shimlapuri police station, said that a team of at least 15 police personnel was involved to ensure peaceful cremation.
“Some escorted the ambulance from hospital and others were on naaka duty near cremation ground so that locals do not create trouble knowing corona infected body was being cremated. First the family did not come to claim the body at hospital and later they even did not come inside the cremation ground,” she said.
Jagsir Singh added: “Even I was ready to light the pyre. It was a question of humanity but then it might have set the wrong precedent. So, as per orders from my seniors, we told the cremation ground worker to light the pyre.”
When The Indian Express contacted the family, her son’s mobile phone was picked up by his wife (victim’s daughter-in-law). Asked about the administration’s claims, she said: “That’s untrue. We do not want to say anything further.”
MLA Simarjeet Singh Bains, who is also a relative of the victim, said,”The family did not refuse to cremate the body, but the SDM told us that five family members can just stand at some distance from the body and rest of the rituals will be performed by them. They never gave any safety suit to any of the family member, hence it is wrong to blame the family. On Tuesday, they will go to the cremation ground to pick the ashes and also they are organising a Sehaj Path in Shimlapuri Gurdwara to perform antim ardas. We don’t know as why administration is organising a separate antim ardas and why are they blaming the family.”
He questioned, “Why is the administration mum on the almost Rs 4 lakh bill generated by Fortis Hospital for 4 days. They need to speak on this issue as well.”
Reacting to the MLA’s claim, ADC Sandhu, said,” I am surprised to hear what MLA of the area is saying. We cremated the body as ‘unclaimed’ body. It was identified, but unclaimed by the family, though we tried to convince them repeatedly. Not only this, even when the woman died, the family had gone home and our duty magistrate who was Tehsildaar Jagsir Singh, signed on the receipt and he got the body from Fortis Hospital. Now they are saying they will go on Tuesday to pick ashes, will they not get infected? As we cremated the body as unclaimed body, hence we are doing ritual of antim ardas on our own. We don’t know about the Sehaj Path. We are organising an Akhand Path on Thursday and bhog will be on Saturday at Baba Deep Singh Gurdwara, Model town extension.”
This is, however, not the only recent case in Punjab where the fear of handling dead bodies of coronavirus victims has led to a controversy.
Residents of Verka village had objected to Amritsar administration’s decision to cremate the body of Gurbani maestro Bhai Nirmal Singh Khalsa at the village cremation ground. The cremation was finally carried out at the shamlat land of the village close to the highway.
On March 30, a 30-year-old suspected patient had died in Ferozepur. Locals had refused to allow cremation at Ferozepur Cantonment due to which body had to be taken to three cremation grounds one after another.
Meanwhile, on Monday, Director, Health and Family Welfare Department, Punjab, issued fresh letter sent to all SSPs, DCs and civil surgeons of Punjab, on dead body management of coronavirus victims, as received from the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The letter clarifies, “The main driver of COVID-19 transmission is through droplets. There is unlikely to be an increased risk of COVID infection from a dead body to health workers or family members who follow standard precautions while handling the body.”