Meet the Bengaluru Citizens Giving COVID Victims Dignity in Death
Amid videos of mass graves & improper burials volunteers in Bengaluru have been respectfully laying the dead to rest
Video Editor: Purnendu Pritam
“A son cannot touch his father, a wife cannot touch her spouse, everyone is standing 8-10 feet away, they are crying...”Sheikh Imran, pharmacy manager and ICU coordinator, Bengaluru
The coronavirus pandemic has upended all aspects of life as we know it, including death and the way we mourn the loss of our loved ones.
As fear of contamination from the deadly virus abounds even in death, funerals and last rites are now conducted by strangers in PPE kits as loved ones watch from a distance.
With the number of cases spiking in Karnataka, disturbing visuals of mass burials and dumping of bodies by earth movers came to the fore, sparking outrage about lack of dignity in death.
For the last many months, a group of volunteers in Bengaluru, the ‘Mercy Angels’, have been volunteering their time to give COVID-19 victims a respectful sendoff. Be it shortage of manpower to transport the remains to the final resting place or performing last rites, ordinary citizens are stepping up by putting personal safety aside.
“We saw some videos where a lot of bodies were being dumped in a mass grave by an earth mover and we thought this is not the way. That this is definitely not the way to respect the dead,” said Azmat Mohammed, a programme manager at DXC Technologies, one of 40-odd volunteers who have been devoting their time to people in need.
Volunteers Play Many Parts
The volunteers pitch in whenever they can spare the time and are often ready to go at a moment’s notice.
They play many parts: While one team instructs the family on the process to be followed, from procuring the death certificate to getting the necessary clearances, another team takes the remains from the mortuary in an ambulance to the crematorium or burial ground.
Another group of volunteers is in constant coordination with the authorities and other relief organisations for speedy arrangements and a seamless process.
Born out of ‘Mercy Mission’, a coalition of over 100 NGOs that have been working together since the lockdown to provide rations and support to the migrants and vulnerable communities, ‘Mercy Angels’ has dedicated itself to providing dignity in death.
‘Started Living Away From my Family’
Volunteers have had to make major lifestyle changes in order to do what they do. From keeping their families safe to ensuring they follow proper disinfection protocol, the concerns are many.
“My dad is 72 and my mom is 68 and there is absolutely no scope for any error. So, I have been staying outside my house since I joined and I make sure that I maintain distance from them, and from other relatives or anyone,” said Ammar Khan, volunteer and medical writer.
BS Veeresh, hospital administrator, explains the multi-step process he follows every time he returns home.
“Till the burial, we have to be in a PPE kit. After burial, we have to sanitize ourselves, our hands and even sometimes in the face. After going home, we used to not touch anything. We go directly to the bathroom, where we keep hot water ready mixed with Dettol, remove clothes, soak them in Dettol mixed water and then bathe. I do this everyday,” he said.
Often having to spend 3-4 hours at a stretch in PPE kits, volunteers say they are covered in sweat by the end of the process.
“It’s not unsafe but it definitely does require a lot of presence of mind. You cannot touch anything and touch your eyes, though you might be profusely sweating under the PPE. It’s a sauna,” said Azmat.
‘Part of Us Dies Each Time’
Speaking about the case of a 17-day-old child, who had succumbed to the virus while her parents were in institutional quarantine, Sheikh Imran said that it was one of the hardest things he has had to do, as a volunteer and a parent himself.
“I have three daughters and the youngest is only 3.5 months. So, when I picked up that baby, the same thing was in my heart. I thought of what her parents would be thinking. Both her parents were in the IT sector and both were in institutional quarantine. I was troubled by this for many many days. I kept picturing the bag in which we carried her and I kept thinking of her and my daughter.”Sheikh Imran
What keeps them going is the thought of the families who would be helpless, if not for volunteers like them.
“What we believe, nobody’s pain is different. No matter whom you call up as your god, the pain is the same, sorrow is the same. We know we cannot do anything more than this, to give them a very loving, dignified and that’s our objective. That’s Mercy Angels,” said Azmat.
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