Sindh asks Centre to reconsider handing over of COVID-19 victims’ bodies to families

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KARACHI: The Sindh government has blamed the Centre for standard operation procedures (SOPs) governing the burial of COVID-19 fatalities, saying that unless the federal government revises the procedure, it cannot unilaterally take a decision to allow bodies to be returned to relatives. 

Speaking to The News, Adviser to the Chief Minister on Law Murtaza Wahab said the Sindh government did not have any objections in handing over the bodies of COVID-19 patients to their families for “proper funeral prayers and dignified burials”.

“On the recommendations from experts of the Pakistan Islamic Medical Association (PIMA) and Dr Abdul Bari Khan of the Indus Hospital Karachi, Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah had directed the health department to revise the SOP for handing over the bodies of those who died due to the coronavirus infection. But the health department says that unless the federal government revises its SOPs in this regard, Sindh cannot take this decision unilaterally,” said Wahab. 

As the government has announced a strict procedure for the funeral and burial of COVID-19 patients, families of the deceased often show anger as they are not allowed to perform the last rites of their loved ones.

On Thursday, attendants of a patient who had reportedly died at the COVID-19 treatment ward at the Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre (JPMC) in Karachi ransacked the treatment facility and terrorised healthcare providers after they were denied custody of the body. However, due to timely intervention by police and Rangers, the family members of the deceased could not take the body away with them.

Under the SOPs adopted by the federal and provincial governments, the body of any patient who dies due to COVID-19 is not handed over. 

Instead, officials from the district administration and a welfare organisation take the body to a designated graveyard, where these patients are buried under strict protocols. Only two family members are allowed to witness the burial.

Wahab said the authorities are aware of the grief and agony of the families whose loved ones are dying due to the coronavirus, and their sorrow and pain increases manifold when the bodies of their loved ones are not handed over to them for a proper burial.

He maintained that a delegation of PIMA had called on CM Murad and told him that the policy of refusal to give bodies to the families was resulting in serious reservations among the people. 

The association had recommended that after staff in proper personal protective equipment had cleansed the body, it should be handed over in a bag or a casket so that the family can bury it after the usual religious rituals.

“This issue is very sensitive, especially in an Islamic society where family members want to see the face of the departed soul. They want to offer the funeral prayers for the deceased and take the body to graveyards on their shoulders for burial. We are aware of the situation and will raise it with the federal government again in the coming meeting of the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) for a change in the SOPs for the burial of the deceased,” Wahab said.

Replying to a query, he rejected the allegations and rumours that some government officials were demanding money for handing over bodies to the families. He asked the people to approach him in case any official had asked them for money for handing over the body to them. “There is no truth in this, but if somebody is demanding money, kindly let me know so that strict action can be initiated against such people,” he said.

Meanwhile, the JPMC administration also urged the provincial government to review its policy on the matter, noting that refusal to hand over a body had angered the family members of a deceased patient to an extent that they vandalised the treatment facility, damaging the precious equipment and machinery at the ward and terrorising healthcare providers.

“It is requested that the SOPs regarding the bodies of COVID-19 patients may be reviewed and revised urgently in the best interest of the medical institutions as it poses a great threat to the medical staff who detain/hold the bodies till the arrival of the district administration and the welfare organisation’s people,” reads a letter written by Dr Seemin Jamali, the JPMC executive director, to the Sindh health department following Thursday’s incident at the health facility.

The Saddar police have registered an FIR against seven people who were arrested on the hospital’s premises for the assault and vandalism incident.

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