SRINAGAR, Jammu and Kashmir 

As COVID-19 fatalities in Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir surge, Sajad Ahmad Khan, along with a team of volunteers, is arranging for dignified burials for the victims.

The free community service was started to inspire others at a time when the deadly contagion is keeping blood relations at arm’s length due to the fear of contracting infection and the stigma attached.

Khan, 38, a businessman from Srinagar, the main city in the region, told Anadolu Agency that the virus can infect anyone but he is amazed to see some people’s “insensitivity” to the disease.

“It’s heartbreaking to see someone dying of this infection, and most of the time nobody turns up for their funeral, even blood relatives,” Khan said.

More than 12,000 cases with 227 deaths have been reported since the pandemic made its way to the region in March. For the past 18 days, the region has witnessed a huge surge in infections and deaths, with almost 127 deaths since July 1.

– Heart-wrenching scene

Khan was moved by scenes at a cemetery in late May when a woman who died from coronavirus was being buried but her relatives were afraid to go near her body or offer funeral prayers.

It was at this point Khan felt there was an urgent need to manage burials for victims.

He told Anadolu Agency the scene left him wondering what if he or his family became infected and what if people would “dishonor” or “stigmatize” the dead in the same way.

“The visuals left me uneasy, and so I decided to manage burials of COVID-19 victims. I shared the idea with many of my friends and they agreed to work with me,” said Khan.

His first priority was to arrange a bulk of protective gear, gloves, sanitizers, masks and ropes for volunteers to ensure the burial service is managed without harm to anyone.

After he amassed a group of 20 volunteers, Khan uploaded a video to Facebook sharing his contact information and urging people to help to arrange for “dignified burials.”

“I asked people to support each other rather than stigmatizing infected or deceased people. I wanted people to play their role in mitigating the crisis,” he said.

– First burial

Khan got his first call on May 27 from a former police officer seeking help to bury his nephew who died at the chest disease hospital in Srinagar.

Soon after the call ended, Khan appointed four volunteers to reach the cemetery where the hospital administration would take the body.

“Following the protocol, my team reached the cemetery in the Malkah area of Srinagar. This was the first COVID-19 burial done by us,” he said.

“The gravediggers walked away when the body was brought. My team carried the body in a rectangular plywood box and lowered it into a pit 2.4 meters [eight feet] deep with the help of ropes.”

Volunteers burned their protective gear and returned home to self-quarantine for 14 days after performing their “moral duty.”

From then on, he got many distressing calls from other families to help arrange burials.

“I’m doing it for the commitment towards society, which is badly needed in the present crisis,” Khan said.

– Trauma and stigma

He said during the past two months he has been left “dumbstruck” by incidents where he couldn’t control his emotions.

He told Anadolu Agency that on June 7 he got a call from a young boy weeping because his master, a non-local tailor from the Indian state of Kolkata, died from COVID-19 and could find no one to help him.

The deceased had worked in Lalchowk, the city center of Srinagar.

Khan and his team reached the area but were taken by surprise when locals were fuming about the burial in a local cemetery, believing it would pass infection onto others.

“I was depressed to see the level of stigma that people attach to this disease and the people infected,” he said.

“Though we convinced the locals and managed to bury the body of the non-local tailor, the incident left me traumatized,” Khan said.

Khan and his team’s help is being sought by many in the region but he said his job will be complete when no one avoids burying the dead with honor and respect.

“I’ll continue to arrange burials for the COVID-19 victims until the time nobody is ashamed of the dead or shies away from it,” he said.

Khan spends from his own pocket for the sake of the burials. Before that he would supply free PPEs to doctors dealing with COVID-19 victims.

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