Employees remove the body of a COVID-19 victim wrapped in double protection from a fridge. Stephanie Lecocq / EPA

COVID-19: What happens when a lot of people die at the same time?

In New York city, mass-grave burials have quintupled. In Madrid, a skating rink was used as a morgue. If cities like this are struggling to cope with the COVID-19 death toll, what can we expect in places affected by war?
Article 22 April 2020

No city, or country, can ever be fully prepared for large scale deaths. But in cities and countries affected by conflict, health systems including facilities that manage the dead, are already compromised. And spikes in the number of dead can lead to chaotic scenes with many bodies or bodies not handled in a respectful way.

But that's not inevitable. Plans can be made and carried out to help limit the pain that families and broader community feel in the face of a high death toll.

Around the world, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) works with authorities to put in place emergency response plans. We recommend that all levels of government come together to deliver a coherent approach to this humanitarian imperative. This requires that the dignity of the deceased and of their next of kin be respected always and that every effort should be made to ensure the timely and reliable identification and documentation of the dead.

Based on its experience gained worldwide from the management of the dead in emergencies, including epidemics, the ICRC expects in some of its operational contexts around the world to be asked by the authorities and other relevant stakeholders for advice on the management of the dead from COVID-19 infection.

The ICRC has prepared a set of recommendations in the form of guidance which are now publicly available and which we hope will help in their efforts. This includes advice on the handling of COVID-19 fatalities and a set of considerations for authorities and managers faced with the need to plan for adequately responding to a possible surge in fatalities caused by COVID-19.

The ICRC also stands ready to assist in those efforts with its own forensic expertise where deemed necessary. This advice and guidance can include assisting in the drafting of contingency plans, raise awareness efforts, training in the proper handling and disposition of the dead.

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