The family of a 44 year old Muslim woman who thought she was cremated because she had COVID-19 are in a state of shock after they learned she didn’t have the virus at all.
Zubair Fathima Rinosa was cremated on May 5 in Colombo as part of Sri Lanka’s controversial policy of cremating all coronavirus victims, irrespective of religion.
Muslim groups have appealed to the government to reverse the decision on the grounds that cremation is not required by the World Health Organization and the fact that Islam prohibits cremations – but to no avail.
According to the ex MP Ali Zahir Moulana, who has spoken with the family, the victim’s family received a call on Tuesday saying that their mother had been infected with COVID-19.
The military, police and health authorities then locked down their area and, according to the victim’s son, the family were subjected to harsh interrogation “threatening bodily harm, disrespecting and abusing them derogatorily, all in the presence of several young children for the purposes of contact-tracing.” The family said they felt as if they were treated like murderers or terrorists.
Ali Zahir Moulana said: “Thereafter, they were taken outside where they underwent PCR tests and were disinfected, along with their children including a 2 month old infant, in full view of the several media cameras aimed at their faces. They were then put into a bus under military escort, and were not informed where they were being taken. Moreover, all this while they were never told that their mother had already passed away that morning.”
According to the family, they were then given documents to sign to consent to cremation and organ testing which they signed under duress. They were then allowed to see the body and even approach it closely and say a prayer with no precautions being taken.
But two days later the son heard through media that his mother had not succumbed to COVID after all and that they could return home. The victim had originally entered hospital with nothing more than a cold.
“The family are in grief and are at a loss, as not only were they not allowed to mourn their mother and give her a proper burial according to their collective wishes, but also they were subject to humiliation at the hands of the authorities and the media in the process,” Ali Zahir Moulana said.
“As recalled to me by the husband, he said he can come to terms that she has lost her life, but not the fact that she was cremated. They are desperate for closure, and have several unanswered questions on the death and cremation in itself.”
Concerns for the safety and security of Sri Lanka’s Muslim community have increased since the outbreak of COVID-19. On April 12, Sri Lankan Muslim organisations wrote to the inspector general of police reporting an upsurge in hate speech, including calls to boycott Muslim businesses and accusations that Muslims are deliberately spreading coronavirus. Senior government figures have made public remarks associating the Muslim community with COVID-19 infection.
Sri Lankan officials have not commented on Zubair Fathima Rinosa’s case but have justified the policy of cremating all coronavirus victims by saying that burials take longer than cremations, and the country’s groundwater levels are too high thereby heightening the risk of infection spreading.
Tensions between Muslims and the majority Buddhist Sinhalese population came to a head in Easter 2019 after local “jihadists” were accused of suicide bombings at three hotels and three churches that killed 279 people.
Weeks later, Sinhalese mobs attacked Muslims, killing one and wounded dozens more. Hundreds of homes and vehicles were destroyed and the authorities were accused of failing to stop the violence – a charge denied by Colombo.