Kin of COVID-19 dead in Punjab refuse to attend last rites

State government trying hard to remove stigma attached to disease

By Seema Sharma
Published: Friday 10 April 2020

The Punjab government is making all-out efforts to fight stigma attached to novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) victims, whose kin and neighbours are not even attending their cremations.

State health minister, Balbir Singh Sidhu and technical education and industrial training minister, Charanjit Singh Channi attended the funeral of Mohan Singh, headman of Chatamali village in Ropar district on April 9, 2020.

Singh had died a day before due to COVID-19 infection. Locals shunned his funeral for fear of catching the virus despite Singh enjoying a good reputation in the area.

“It doesn’t pose any threat to attendees or nearby residing people,” Sidhu said. Health officials were following all health protocols issued by the health ministry during the funerals of COVID-19-infected people, he added.

The ash of the infected deceased also did not create any risk so it could be collected post-cremation, according to rituals, Sidhu said.

Kin, neighbours shun funerals

There have been many such incidents in Punjab where family members of the deceased who died of COVID-19, refused to perform the last rites due to fear of contracting the virus.

On April 7, the family of 65-year-old Jaswinder Singh, a retired superintending engineer of the Amritsar Municipal Corporation refused to cremate him.

The deceased had reported positive two days prior to his death. His daughter, who is studying medicine, was informed about his death. But she refused to attend the cremation. The family was requested to at least attend the ceremony from a distance but none turned up.

Singh’s pyre was finally lit by local administration officials and municipal corporation workers. Deputy Commissioner of Police, Shiv Dullar Singh, urged people to pay last respect to their loved ones who died of the disease.

“The body is properly sealed in a bag and there is no way that the virus is transmitted to the people in attendance on the occasion,” he said.

A day before Singh’s death, a 69-year-old woman had died of COVID-19 in Ludhiana. Her family members too washed their hands off cremating her body.

In another incident in Moranwali village in Hoshiarpur district, Patwari Jagir Singh said he had a tough time in conducting the cremation of the local granthi (caretaker of the gurdwara) who died of COVID-19.

He said that the village had been sealed after news of the granth’s turning positive came to light. The villagers were not even willing to give wood for the pyre, which was arranged with great difficulty.

Some villagers in Verka, Amritsar objected to the cremation of Padma Shree awardee Bhai Nirmal Singh Khalsa, who died of the viral infection on April 2. They alleged the ritual would spread the virus in the area.

After a round of negotiations, the villagers offered a secluded plot of village land, at a small distance from the village cremation ground.

Khalsa, a former ‘Hazoori Ragi’ or devotional singer at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, has been a noted figure who was awarded the Padma Shri in 2009, for his proficiency in singing Gurbani in different renditions of 31 varied ragas.

He was taken to hospital on March 30 after complaining of respiratory distress and died two days later.

Health minister Sidhu said he had been making all-out efforts to assure people that cremations were being carried out in accordance with the guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.

“The crematorium and burial ground staff have been directed to ensure hand hygiene and use masks and gloves,” he said. 

“The relatives are allowed to see only the face of the deceased for one last time by unzipping the body bag and, perform religious rituals which does not involve touching the body such as reading the holy scriptures or sprinkling the holy water. An advisory has been issued on maintaining social distancing at cremation grounds,” he added.

Till date, some 10 deaths have been reported in Punjab while 130 cases have been termed positive and 3,192 samples have been sent for testing.

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