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Lonely farewells amid virus fear: ‘For hours, no one at hospital touched my mother’s body out of fear’

Written by Divya Goyal
| Ludhiana |

Updated: April 2, 2020 11:32:02 am

coronavirus, coronavirus infection, coronavirus outbreak, coronavirus deaths, coronavirus in punjab, indian express news Sources in the Punjab Health Department revealed that health staffers have also been directed to prepare lists of electric/LPG-operated crematoriums in each district. (Representational Photo)

For hours on March 29, family and friends of a 45-year-old man from Ludhiana’s Chakki village refused to touch his body fearing that he had succumbed to the deadly coronavirus. Villagers refused to allow a cremation without a medical test into the reasons behind the cough and fever that took his life. The final rites could only be performed after the state’s Health Department intervened and allayed fears.

A day later when Ludhiana recorded its first COVID-19 death, the victim — a 42-year-old woman from Amarpura Basti who died at Government Medical College and Hospital (GMCH), Patiala – had to be cremated in the dead of the night. She was cremated at 1.30 am on the intervening night of March 30 and 31 in Ludhiana, hours after her death, with only her two sons and some policemen in attendance.

Despite the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare for the management of dead bodies in case of coronavirus death, there isn’t much awareness even among Health Department workers and hospital staffers on how to handle bodies. The result is the rising fear of catching infection during final rites of the victims which is translating into insensitivity towards the victims and their families.

Speaking to The Indian Express, Sandeep Singh, son of the 42-year-old woman from Ludhiana who died due to COVID-19, said that for hours after her mother died at GMCH, Patiala, none from hospital staff was ready to touch her body or pack it for her last rites, fearing that they might catch infection. “Ghanton tak koi meri mummy ki body ko haath lagane ko tayaar nahi tha hospital mein… (For hours, none was ready to touch the body of my mother at the hospital),” he said.

Sandeep further claimed that even as he and his brother got to know about their mother’s death around 2 pm that day (March 30), they could leave for Ludhiana from Patiala for cremation only by night, as the body wasn’t packed for transportation for hours.

“Everyone in hospital at Patiala, including health workers and junior doctors, were afraid of touching my mother’s body. They were murmuring that what if we will also get infected. Some of them were even telling us (both brothers) to pick up the body and get it packed. It was only after a very senior doctor came there and sensitised junior staff on how to handle bodies that it was finally packed in a zip bag. The senior doctor told staff that if they cover themselves properly and handle body with minimum touch, infection won’t spread but workers and everyone else was very scared. They were in panic,” said Sandeep.

“It was only after hours of wait that two workers wearing safety suits touched the body and picked it up. But even later, my brother and I lifted the body and put it in the vehicle given to us by Patiala-based cremation ground management . Though workers were trying to help but their expressions and actions made it clear that they were very scared. We could leave Patiala only by 9 pm or so and cremation was done at 1.30 am in Ludhiana. We were told not to let relatives or friends come to the cremation ground,” he said.

At the cremation ground however, the protocol was properly followed and rule of ‘minimum touch’ with bodies and social distancing was maintained.

“It was just me, my brother and police and who attended the cremation. After lighting the pyre, we too were told to depart from the spot immediately. We also maintained a safe distance from the pyre. The body was completely packed and it wasn’t opened again for any rituals or to make us see our mother’s face for the last time,” he said.

Sandeep said that after his mother’s death, he and his brother have been facing a lot of social stigma including abuses and bad language. “What was our fault if we took care of our ailing mother? Who else would have done that? Our father is no more. In the process, even if we caught infection from her, does that make us criminals? People have been abusing us.”

About the arrangements at Ludhiana Civil Hospital, he added: “Four hours after we admitted our mother at Civil Hospital Ludhiana on evening of March 29, she wasn’t even given proper treatment. Ludhiana hospital had no arrangements to deal with COVID-19 patients. They kept harassing her, taking her from one room to the other. Finally at 2 am she was taken to Patiala. Ludhiana hospital had no ambulance. We arranged it on our own. The next day at Patiala hospital, we were not even informed that my mother has died. It was only after we went to see her and saw white sheet covering her face, we questioned doctors. It was only then that they said she is no more. Maybe she died hours back but no one informed us,” said an inconsolable Sandeep.

Ludhiana Civil Surgeon Dr Rajesh Bagga said, “The last rites of COVID-19 patients are being done as per the guidelines by the ministry and health workers are being sensitised on how to handle bodies. Minimum touch with the body and social distance at the cremation ground are the key. The body is properly packed in a zip bag and not opened again. Just the family or someone every close can attend the cremation or burial. Both cremation and burial are allowed as per guidelines but in case of burials, it is better to dig the grave deeper than normal.”

Sources in the Punjab Health Department revealed that health staffers have also been directed to prepare lists of electric/LPG-operated crematoriums in each district. “We have submitted the lists of operational electric/LPG crematoriums in our district,” said a health official from Moga. Son of the Ludhiana victim said that doctors in Patiala had asked if they wanted to opt for electric crematorium, but they had refused.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, nurses and paramedical staff at Government Medical College and Hospital, Patiala, protested alleging they did not have adequate number of PPE kits, alleging that even those provided to them were ‘faulty’. A video of this protest also went viral on social media platforms. A nurse also alleged that she had attended to Ludhiana patient without proper kit, adding that after the victim’s death, her body kept lying unattended for hours.

Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?

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