The Sri Lankan government appears to be dragging its heels after an expert medical panel it appointed concluded that burials were safe for COVID-19 victims.
The panel, appointed by the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health, was chaired by Senior Professor in Microbiology Jennifer Perera. It consisted of 11 reputed virologists, microbiologists and immunologists and recommended that COVID-19 deceased could be buried or cremated.
“Based on observations and relying on current scientific information, the council of the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) is with the view that burial of COVID-19 dead bodies could be permitted in Sri Lanka,” the panel said.
It added: “While firmly standing by on the previous recommendation and guidelines on exclusive cremations of dead bodies as the most appropriate method of disposal which was based on the understanding at the time, the expert committee has revised the recommendations on disposal of bodies to include both cremation and burial while adhering to the specified safety precautions.”
Colombo’s policy of burning all deceased COVID-19 victims has impacted disproportionately on the Muslim community which has suffered over 100 deaths and whose religion requires burial.
The policy flies in the face of World Health Organization guidelines which stipulate that coronavirus victims can be buried or cremated.
Ex Sri Lankan MP Ali Zahir Moulana, who has spearheaded the campaign to get the government to change course, questioned why the authorities had not acted on the recommendations.
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He tweeted: “Today marks one week since Govt-appointed expert panel submitted its report to the Health Ministry, where it recommended burial & cremation for COVID19 deceased, citing science. The Govt is yet to act, while the death toll increases. Where is the humanity?”
In the UK the Muslim Council of Britain is supporting the rights of minority groups in Sri Lanka to bury their deceased. It recently instructed leading human rights law firm, Bindmans LLP, to bring the matter to the attention of the United Nations Human Rights Committee for resolution.
The MCB Secretary-General, Harun Khan said: “We welcome the expert panel’s revised guidance which allows for burials and is in line with the World Health Organization’s recommendation. This is a positive step and we urge the Sri Lankan Government to reverse the policy of compulsory cremation.”
The Sri Lankan authorities have given vague justifications for the cremation policy, including that the dead bodies will contaminate the groundwater. But many feel that the policy is more to do with racism and Islamophobia against the Muslim minority.
Tensions between Muslims and the majority Buddhist Sinhalese population have been simmering since 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.