Dignity in death: Indian philanthropist ensures coffins for Covid-19 victims

By Iqbal Abhimanyu

New Delhi, July 9 (efe-epa).- An Islamic scholar and his modest nonprofit in India have taken it on themselves to give a dignified burial to Covid-19 victims even as the country struggles to contain the pandemic, with cases soaring after a months-long lockdown that severely affected the socio-economic situation of the people.

Aijaz-ur-Rahman Qasmi, who has a degree in Islamic law and runs an NGO ambitiously called the World Peace Organization from a small office in a south Delhi neighborhood, began the initiative to provide people with free or subsidized coffins after witnessing an “undignified burial” first-hand.

“I saw a woman, who was my friend’s sister, being lowered into a grave so disrespectfully that it looked a sacrilege. The body was tied with ropes and an earthmover dug a pit and it was thrown into it. That was very humiliating,” Qasmi told EFE.

The philanthropist and his friend broke into tears at the sight as “human dignity is a right given by God to all humans,” he said.

“But in the Covid-19 situation where we are struggling to live, the dead, it seems, don’t figure in our priorities. That makes death even more horrible. We don’t know what will happen to us if we also fall victim to the virus.”

The concern for the victims’ dignity became the root of an initiative that has donated coffins to dozens of Muslim victims of Covid-19 in the Indian capital, which has emerged as the biggest epicenter of the pandemic in recent weeks, with 3,213 deaths and over 100,000 cases of the disease reported so far.

Many of the victims come from impoverished Muslim-dominated neighborhoods of Delhi, where the first Covid-19 hotspot was linked to a gathering of Islamic religious movement Tablighi Jamaat.

The crowded working-class colonies have since then reported multiple clusters of infection in the city of 19 million people.

However, the project to arrange coffins for coronavirus dead was not an easy one because of multiple factors, including religious considerations.

As Islam doesn’t permit last rites to be carried out inside coffins under normal circumstances – with the dead traditionally being lowered in graves wrapped in shrouds after a ritual bath, Qasmi spoke to some Islamic scholars and made them issue a fatwa, or a religious decree, allowing Covid-19 victims to be buried in caskets as a special measure.

This, according to him, was both acceptable within the religion under special circumstances such as war and natural disasters as well as the best way to offer decent burials to the victims, as touching the bodies for the traditional rituals was made impossible due to the fear of contracting the virus.

The next challenge for the small nonprofit was financial, as even after a discount, caskets made by a Christian coffin-maker were priced at 4,300 rupees ($57), a sizable sum for both the organization and the humble families it aimed to help.

Therefore, after buying a couple of coffins from the producer, Qasmi hired a carpenter to copy the design and build coffins at the cost of 2,700 rupees ($36).

The organization has built 80 coffins so far and already distributed 72 of them at almost no cost, although those willing to contribute voluntarily have given them small sums like 500-1000 rupees ($7-$14).

“That is not a problem, at least the dignity of the dead is not desecrated,” Qasmi told EFE.

He is not alone in his valiant efforts to help Indians amid the pandemic as several nonprofits have been trying to provide food, healthcare, and transport to the people, especially the weaker sections of the society, even as the government struggles to contain the pandemic.

Cases have soared since a strict lockdown in place since March was eased on June 8, with India becoming the third-worst affected nation by the new pandemic worldwide with over 760,000 confirmed cases and more than 21,000 deaths so far.

However, the government has insisted that India’s fatality and case rates were low in proportion to its population of over 1.3-billion and highlighted the rising number of recovered patients.

“It would perhaps be not fair to compare India to other countries in terms of absolute numbers, India has 195.5 cases per million population which is amongst the lowest in the world,” the health ministry said in a statement on Thursday.

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