KOCHI: While the rest of the world shrank in fear of contracting COVID, some heroic souls took upon themselves the duty of conducting respectable burial and cremation of those who died due to the viral infection.
Half a year of COVID and over 400 deaths later, volunteers in the state, who took upon themselves the humanitarian responsibility, say that the underlying fears which were prevalent among them initially were overcome only after dealing with many such funerals.
The hardest part, they say, is the sad final stage when even loved ones and blood relatives are absent during the final rites. "At one point, in the beginning of the pandemic, apprehension was high, regarding the spread of the virus and risk of infection while dealing with the bodies of Covid patients. Initially, we also had a lot of doubts and apprehension as we were afraid we would infect our family members -- those staying with elderly parents were particularly worried," said Deepak Devassy, a volunteer of Sahrudaya, the social wing of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese of the Syro-Malabar Church, which has been actively involved in COVID preventive activities.
"Now after almost two months of being part of this as volunteers, we have learnt to deal with the fear of infection spread. Seeing parents and children unable to attend funerals or bid goodbyes to relatives one last time, however, is heart-breaking and difficult to deal with," he said.
In some cases, where patients pass away before being diagnosed with COVID-19 or die immediately after testing positive, the entire family is required to be quarantined. In such scenarios, they would not able to attend the burial or cremation.
At the earlier stages of the pandemic, anyone providing care for COVID patients was considered to be a carrier of the virus, and even healthcare staff were not spared from scrutiny and discrimination. It took some time for the general public and relatives of the deceased to understand that COVID, though a virulent disease, can be kept in check with necessary precautions as advised by medical experts.
Fr Jaison Koluthuvallil, another volunteer, remembers that all his fears of infection melted away after his efforts found wholehearted and enthusiastic support from his relatives and superiors. "One must wear the protective gear to realise how uncomfortable it is to don a full PPE and N95 mask. Healthcare workers deserve kudos for their tireless efforts inside the PPE kits for long hours," said Fr Jaison.
"Even while we have had to wear the PPEs for only two hours at a stretch, it certainly has not been a good experience. Prior to hands-on work on the field, we were trained by health workers in the procedure to deal with the bodies and the mandatory precautions to be taken. It was difficult for many of us in the beginning, but we overcame that," he added.
Meanwhile, Fr Joseph Koluthuvallil, director of Sahrudaya, said around 20 COVID burials and cremations had been conducted by their volunteers. "We coordinate with the parishes in the particular area and also with the health officials there. Around 50 priests of the archdiocese are also involved in such activities, particularly in areas where volunteers are hard to come by," said Fr Joseph.