“If someone asked me a year ago if I liked to stay at home, I would have jumped at the chance. But now, being stuck in one place for almost a year, I would do anything to move back to a normal life.”

This is a sentiment expressed by many of the Sri Lankan population, as we continue to adjust ourselves to the new normal in a Covid stricken community.

But nothing to worry about, is there? This endless complaint, though it has become a fact today, is retaliated by new, awe inspiring ideas like, “Let’s face this together….together we are one…our hearts are together…” and all the propaganda we see in the media today.

I say, how true are we? We are in this together of course. As a community we are affected. New SAARS COV2, the virus which infected almost half of the world population, has no caste, creed or religion. For this virus it only matters that you are a living, breathing organism. And dear reader, you are one as well. I am one as well. We are all human. And if we are unfortunate enough, you or I will become a carrier. Or a victim. Or both. We do not have a choice of whether we get this illness or not.

But we do have a choice in some matters. We have a choice to stop discriminating people. We have a choice to actually face this together, instead of being hypocritical judges on the situation. It is with great displeasure that this author reports a series of unfortunate incidents that happened in the country in the past few weeks.

Sri Lanka is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic country. We believe in equality for all. But beliefs and reality exist in completely two different dimensions. The first Covid death in Sri Lanka was reported on 29 th March 2020. It was a 65 year old man with a history of diabetes. Even if a death from Covid 19 is a normal yet grievous incident, the death of a loved one is accompanied by funeral rites which is taken very seriously by all Sri Lankans irrespective of race, caste and creed. However, the man, a Muslim, was forcefully cremated without the complete knowledge of his family.

The Islam as well as Christianity prefers burial over cremation. The funeral rite consists of four simple steps: wash the body, wrap in white cloth, pray for the afterlife and burial. They believe that as man rose from the soil, it should go under the soil as well, at the end of life. If any of the practice of these religions is being proven wrong with evidence or if it can harm another religious community, it teaches its followers to stop practicing the ritual. However, the question which arose six months ago, which had now become a reason for oppression was- should we allow Covid infected bodies to be buried? Or should we cremate them?

Sri Lanka’s response to Covid 19 was indeed praiseworthy. On the very moment the first Sri Lankan patient was detected, an expert committee of physicians were appointed to battle the unknown. This task was divided into four steps namely: Identifying the disease, Covid Contamination, Treatment of Covid Patients and Disposal of dead bodies. A team of virologists oversaw all the steps while doctors worked in each process. However, even if Sri Lanka managed the spread quite well, the government ordered all dead bodies to be cremated, a decision which sparked outrage not only among the Muslim and Christian minority, but the country as a whole.

The argument put forward on this issue is that Corona Virus could spread through buried dead bodies as well, and the burial will lead the germ to be mixed with soil and water. I however, dear reader, find this statement ridiculous. Professor Malik Peiris, 4* world renowned for his work during the SARS pandemic, clearly stated that a virus could only exist in the body of a living organism for a maximum of 7 days. Once a week passed, the person will not be a carrier, so how come dead bodies spread the disease? If there was any proven case in the world saying that buried bodies spread diseases, then it is a scientific marvel, and would help not only science but the human population as well. The WHO clearly states that disposal of dead bodies can be met with burial OR cremation, which will respect the dignity of the dead and their families as far as possible.

According to the recommendations of the afore mentioned expert committee appointed by the Hon. President of Sri Lanka himself, part A of Article 2 clearly states that the decision of cremation or burial clearly rests in the hands of the family of the dead. 6*Further, it is clearly stated that 10 minutes were allowed for any religious activity under supervision while observing health precautions. The problem will be less serious if it stopped from there. But the cause for outrage around the world was because of 20 month old baby Shaykh, who passed away after testing positive for Covid 19 through an Antigen test. To make it worse, the body was cremated, thereby denying Islamic funeral rites.

As reported by Al Jazeera, there was no signed consent by the bereaved parents for the boy’s cremation. But the PCR tests, which arrived after the death of the baby was negative.8* This is only one case among more than 15 Muslims, who were denied funeral rites. It indeed sounds wonderful how Sri Lanka has made burial of Covid stricken bodies a taboo, while all scientific evidence points against it. Meanwhile, anguished Muslim families are refusing to pay the fee demanded by the state to cover the costs of cremations in protest against the all cremation policy. Cremations vs burial has now become a fight against denial of basic human rights, as all ethnic groups alike tied white ribbons to the gates of the crematorium as a sign of their anger.

Rights group Amnesty International 9* also released a statement saying the government should ensure all Sri Lankan groups be treated equally. An exaggerated fear, hatred and hostility towards Islam and Muslims are perpetuated by negative stereotypes. Sure, there are extremists. The massacre on Easter 2019 was enough proof for that.10* My question to you, educated reader, is, can we judge a tree by a dead leaf on the ground? The whole point of a religion, be it Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, is to help our spiritual development. And in these hard times, frustration is present. We are locked up in our homes. Our plans, dreams and wishes are burned in the face of a dark future.

The pain of losing a loved one is inevitable. Life is not guaranteed, but death is. The final farewell given to the departed lies in the funeral rites that our religion bestows upon us. Religion, no matter what you believe, is the light in the darkness. The white among the grey areas that has so characterized our days. Because a belief in Buddha, Jesus or Allah and thousands of religious teachings makes us shed the rose tinted lenses and see reality to what it is. It gives us the spiritual protection during hard times. And it gives the one thing that made mankind win over all obstacles since time immemorial: Hope.

A hope for a better life is fuelled by religious teachings. We try to do our best with what is left for us. If we are to get through this pandemic, as Dr. Anil Jasinghe once said,11* it is extremely important that we are psychologically strong. A mentally strong person can overcome diseases quicker than a weaker being, and to be mentally strong we turn to religion. South Asian countries are defined by this strong intellectual connection between religion and life.12* So what right do we have to deprive another human being from their religious rites? This sensitive issue has turned into a story of racial prejudice, as more than 190 countries have agreed on allowing both Cremations and Burials.

I assure you that this author has made no attempt in promoting any ethnic group. I only believe that this is the time we have to get together. Well done is better than well said. Friends don’t divide by difference, they unite because of it. Deep down, we are all human. We go through the cycle of life, a journey where death is only one destination. We go through pain and sorrow, we want to leave our mark in this world. So why are we disturbing our inner peace with unwanted, condemning behavior? 13*This life, as taught by all religions, is given to us to be treasured. We need to treasure other lives as well to learn its true meaning. So yes, dear reader, I have a question for you. It is very clear that our country is on the brink of falling down to the hell known as “oppression.” There are ‘minor’ groups and ‘major’ groups in Sri Lanka. There is Islamophobia going around the country. And here, I only present one question, the one which goes through everyone’s mind right now, but no one is ready to answer.

When will this end…?

Anjalee Handaragama

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