Crematorium workers handling Covid19 deaths lack basic safety equipment

Safety measures for Covid dead bodies remain on paper


July 30, 2020

/ By Richa Nigam / New Delhi

Crematorium workers

The lack of proper equipment of the crematorium staff stood in stark contrast with the way the hospital staff were dressed (MIG Photos)

Crematorium workers, who handle dead bodies of Covid19 victims, remain unnoticed but are important warriors in the battle against Coronavirus pandemic. Yet, these workers in Delhi lack basic safety measures to protect themselves from Covid19 virus.

By 11 am on Wednesday, four corpses had been brought for a cremation to the Dayanand Muktidham crematorium, just off Lodhi Road in National Capital Delhi. At the crematorium, the bodies were handled by the personnel just as they had been dealing with corpses for years. The only difference in their appearance was a basic mask and for most of them make-do gloves to cover their hands.

The corpses though were wrapped and sealed from head to toe in a protective covering and had been brought to the crematorium by hospital personnel dressed in PPE gear as is mandatory. The almost casual approach of the crematorium staff towards the risk of infection stood in stark contrast with the way the hospital staff as well next of kin of the deceased were dressed and handled the corpse.

Moments earlier, though, the officials at the crematorium, a private venture operated by Arya Samaj, a reformist movement of Hinduism, repeatedly assured your correspondent that all the workers handled the bodies following all safety and hygiene norms set by the government. ‘‘Actually, we don’t even touch the bodies. It is the hospital staff that carries the corpses to the pyre. Our team just puts in place the pyre and performs the last rites,’’ the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, had told Media India Group.

The lack of proper equipment and ignorance of safety regulations puts the staff in a very high-risk category as corpses are highly infectious despite the protective covering that they are wrapped in. And with the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down in the country, the workers at crematoriums walk a thin rope every time a cremation takes place. And yet, these workers who are one of the most important links in curbing the virus and who carry out a challenging yet crucial job of providing dignified last rituals to the deceased have so far remained in the shadows. Unlike other ‘corona warriors’ such as doctors, nurses, other healthcare personnel and the police who have been duly applauded since the outbreak of the pandemic for the dedication to their jobs in face of a mortal danger.

Crematorium workers

Ignorance of safety regulations puts the staff in a very high-risk category as the corpses are highly infectious despite them being wrapped in protective covering (MIG Photos)

The crematorium workers have remained vulnerable and without proper gear to prevent infections for nearly four months now as it was as early as mid-March that the union ministry of health and family welfare had set the rules handling of bodies of Covid-19 victims.

The fear of the virus is palpable everywhere and there have been instances where families of those who died of the infection refuse to claim the corpses and conduct the final rituals, leaving it for the hospital personnel, the police or some charities to do it. Yet, in an environment of such paranoia, workers at the crematoriums have been performing their duties. Though they might not be aware of the identity of the person whose body they may be handling, they go ahead and do their jobs.

Fortunately, the workers at the Dayanand crematorium have so far escaped the virus. But they, too, are afraid of catching the infection or taking it home to their families. “None of our workers have been infected with Covid yet. But obviously we are in constant fear of a mishap,’’says an official, who himself is without any protection besides a mask.

“We are scared. I have never seen witnessed anything like this in my life before. Only a few days back, so many bodies were being brought for cremation almost in a heap as many people were succumbing to Covid-19 everyday. The death rate may have declined a bit but we are scared of the possibility of getting infected with the virus,” says the official, as he scans papers sent by municipal authorities with details of the identity of the deceased.

Again in contrast with other professions handling coronavirus patients, the crematorium workers are not even protected by insurance cover for illness or death. “As this is a private organisation, there is no insurance so far. The municipal corporation has said they would provide the insurance coverage but it has not yet happened,’’ says a priest at the crematorium. While the rites and cremation took place, the priests performing the rituals seemed to have no safety equipment except a piece of cloth to cover their mouth.

Even though placing a corpse on a pyre is more complicated as it brings the staff in closer contact to the bodies, most of the funerals are conducted using pyres (MIG Photos)

Use of electric furnace does cut the risk of infection spreading from the corpse due to the little handling needed while placing a corpse on a pyre is more complicated with a higher risk of infection. But most of the funerals are conducted using pyres. “We have to cremate the infected bodies in open, just like non-infected bodies. The electric furnace needs to be booked in advance and we can manage only four to five cremations in the furnace as the safety rules specify a gap of at least three to four hours between two cremations. As our crematorium owns a single electric furnace, we cremate around four to five bodies everyday in there. For the rest, we have to go with the normal process as usual,” says the official.

There are adequate medical evidences and hundreds of cases across the world where coronavirus infection has spread from patients to doctors, hospital staffs, nurses and to people who handle the dead bodies. The vulnerability of the cremation workers stands out whenever a corpse comes and the hospital staff removes the body from the hearse.

Here, private hospitals seem to be following the due norms for the safety of their personnel.“We are not in fear of Covid19. We wear PPE kits and take all the necessary precautions while handling the dead bodies. We assist the relatives of the deceased from taking the body out of the hospital, in the ambulance and till the cremation process ends,” says Barun, dressed in high-quality PPE, who works at Max Hospital, New Delhi. Barun was one of the three assistants who helped the next of kin of a Covid-19 victim inbringing the remains to the crematorium.

All three hospital workers said they were satisfied with the facilities provided to them by the hospital (MIG Photos)

“We are provided with all precautionary care from the hospital we work at. All healthcare workers, who assist the Covid suspects at the hospital or handle the dead bodies, have received Covid Insurance. We also work in shifts. We work for 14 days and are sent to quarantine for the next seven days as a precaution,” adds Barun. All three workers spoke of being satisfied with the facilities provided to them by the hospital.

The cremation workers say that despite the lack of facilities and the risk of exposure to the deadly disease, they will continue to properly carry out their responsibility of providing a dignified last journey to the deceased.“We are scared but this is our work. We have to do this and we’ll continue to do this no matter what. None of our workers has left the job or has refused to deal with any Covid19 body that arrives here, due to risk of the deadly infection it carries. All our workers go back to their home and stay with their families after dealing with Covid infected bodies throughout the day. There is a high chance of risk. We can do nothing but hope for our and our family’s safety. This is what we have been doing for years now. We’ve been doing this work for the people. Where will the appalled people go if we refuse to perform last rites for the deceased Covid victims?” wonders the priest.



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