Volunteers of Al-Markazul Islami carry a COVID-19 infected dead body for final rituals.

Bangladesh: Helping families in dignified management of the dead during COVID-19

As deaths due to COVID-19 rise in Bangladesh, the bereaved families face yet another grim reality – that of not being able to bury their loved ones with full rituals due to the fear of exposing themselves to the virus.
Article 22. April 2020 Bangladesh

In most of the cases, families and community members have not been able to attend the funeral prayers either because of physical distancing measures or due to fear of the infection. There have been instances where neighbours and locals have stopped the burial from happening, thus forcing families to abandon the body. But not being part of such a personal and emotional moment is likely to take its toll. Some families are already worried about not knowing how the body would be handled during the final moments.

Helping people find closure the best way possible right now, a few charitable organizations, along with the authorities and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), are taking measures for proper handling of the dead in Bangladesh. The Directorate of Health Services has appointed Al-Markazul Islami and Quantum Foundation, two NGOs, to help bury COVID-19 infected bodies. While Al-Markazul Islami is active in the city of Dhaka, Quantum Foundation is working across Bangladesh, barring Dhaka.

Management of the dead

To cope, all families need to mourn the loss and bury their dead. Those needs are not always respected in the aftermath of an emergency or a crisis. Proper and dignified management of the dead is key to dealing with such situations. Not only does it preserve the dignity of the deceased and eases the pain of the family, but it also ensures that people do not go missing due to chinks in the system.

Performing yeoman service for the bereaved families, Al-Markazul Islami has come forward to help them. Its acting chairman Hamza Shahidul Islam shares how his organization is supporting the overwhelmed authorities during this difficult time. They collect the bodies from the hospitals, carry them to their own hospital in Dhaka and perform the final rituals while keeping families aware and informed of all the steps. Everything is done free of cost. To date, the NGO has buried 70 bodies of people who died due to COVID-19.

Volunteers of Al-Markazul Islami carry a COVID-19 infected dead body for final rituals. M Hossain OPU/ICRC

"It was challenging at first because the volunteers feared handling the body bags even though the bodies were safely covered. But they have overcome that worry and are not afraid to carry out this noble deed anymore," he says. The organization has close to 15 volunteers helping carry out the work.

The ICRC supports Al-Markazul Islami by working with them in protecting the dead and their families. ICRC
The ICRC supports Al-Markazul Islami by working with them in protecting the dead and their families. ICRC

The ICRC supports Al-Markazul Islami by working with them in protecting the dead and their families, while raising awareness and providing them with technical advice in their work. It has donated 600 body bags and burial cloth to Al-Markazul Islami, Quantum Foundation and the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief to help with dignified burials and prioritizing the health and safety of those who handle the bodies.

Supporting families and authorities

Minimum standards need to be maintained while handling the bodies during emergencies so as to avoid harm in terms of undignified treatment and ensure that families know what happened to their beloved ones. Practices need to be put in place to prevent people from disappearing through the cracks of the system and going untraceable.

Patricia Fischer, the ICRC's forensics specialist, says, "We work with the authorities on preparedness response for emergencies, addressing the protection of the dead and the respect towards their families. During any emergency, particularly natural disasters or events that may result in mass fatalities, the ICRC's forensics unit engages with authorities to fulfil their role towards affected populations, addressing and implementing best practices for management of the dead."

Appreciating the ICRC's prompt support, Md Saifullahil Azam, joint secretary of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, says, "As part of a series of activities to tackle novel coronavirus, we have assigned two organizations to handle the bodies of those who succumb to COVID-19. We are grateful to the ICRC for their quick response by way of donating body bags and burial cloth, which has been very helpful indeed."

Though it remains uncertain about how the next few months will pan out, the ICRC will continue to work with the authorities and support them with technical advice, guidance and training, as well as help them with materials and equipment for dignified management of the dead.