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Wednesday 8 July 2020

Bengal revises SOP after furore over vanishing bodies of COVID victims

The Mamata Banerjee government's new SOP for hospitals permits the kin of COVID-19 victims to pay last respects, revising its older way of 'keeping people safe'

A day after the Sirf News report raising the issue of the dignity of the dead in West Bengal, the Mamata Banerjee government has issued a standard operating procedure (SOP), permitting kin of #COVID-19 victims to pay last respects to their near and dear ones. “Hospitals to inform family within 30 min, body bag with transparent face cover must for the family to see body one last time,” journalist Sourav Sanyal tweeted this evening.

The West Bengal government has revised the SOP after a furore in the past two months over the denial of dignity in death to those who had lost their battle to the virus. The changed rules applicable in Bengal are as follows.

  1. In the event of the death of a patient, the hospital authorities shall inform the family members
  2. A body cover with transparent face area shall be used; the body cover supplied earlier shall not be used
  3. Mask and gloves will be provided to the family members by the concerned hospital after proper sanitisation
  4. The dead body should be kept at a suitable place for 30 min during which the family members shall be allowed to pay their last respects

The previous SOP did not let the bereaved families receive the bodies of patients that died of COVID-19 or other SARI (severe acute respiratory infections) diseases. The state claimed this SOP was in the public interest, protecting the distressed families from coming in contact with the body and get infected in the process.

However, even as the SOP might have saved lives, it also left many families despondent, as they were denied the right to cremate or bury the bodies in accordance with their respective rituals and customs. Many could not even catch a glimpse of the body for one last time.

“My maternal brother died on 24 April at the hospital. He was COVID positive. I was at the hospital when they broke the news. We waited for more than an hour hoping we will get to see him one last time. But the hospital had taken his body away along with others. We were not even informed. His wife pleaded to let her see him one last time but then it was late. The body was taken away for cremation. It’s inhuman and we can’t forgive the hospital authorities,” said the member of a family in Howrah that lost a relative to the deadly disease two months ago.

Videos on social media meanwhile showed how state functionaries were taking out bodies wrapped in plastic sheets from hospitals in the middle of the night. At times, villagers resisted the cremation or burial.

There were other videos that spoke of secret cremation grounds, with the commentators alleging that this was Bengal government’s bid to suppress the actual toll of coronavirus in the state.

The opposition condemned the Banerjee government for allegedly trying to fudge data, the reason why the state hospitals had been conspicuous about deaths but the state had all along vehemently dismissed such allegations.

For many families, it was an agonising wait — that at times lasted days — to just know if their loved ones were alive. Many wondered how and why it was impossible for hospitals to arrange a viewing of the dead body from a distance.

Doctors defend previous SOP of Bengal govt

A doctor in a COVID-special hospital said, “We understand it’s hard for anyone to accept. But imagine the initial days. We all were under tremendous stress. The frontline workers at hospitals were risking their lives to serve the patients. When someone dies due to COVID-19, that itself is unnerving. We had to follow precautions.”

“First, pack the body with a plastic sheet, then ensure the body is taken away from the ward and kept in isolation. Managing the least humane thing to let families watch the body from a distance meant additional effort, an extra arrangement from already strained resources at a government hospital. It might look cruel but we were helpless at times” claimed the super from a prominent COVID-19 hospital in Kolkata on condition of anonymity.

A total of 383 people have died due to COVID-19 in Bengal so far as. While 311 are confirmed as COVID-19 deaths, the remaining 72 were deaths attributed to comorbidity. None of the bodies was handed to their respective families as part of the SOP.

That standard operating procedure will continue but the state government amendments mean that henceforth people will at least get a chance to bid a proper goodbye to the departed soul, see them one last time and pay their last respects, something that most amongst the 383 families were unfortunately deprived of.

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