DYING WITHOUT DIGNITY IN THE TIME OF CORONA
The last year or so has shown that deaths, especially deaths due to Covid-19 can be distressingly lonely affairs. Patients are dying alone due to public health restrictions.
What’s worse is that the deadly Coronavirus is not only robbing people of their right of a final farewell but also the dignity of the dead, thus aggravating the grief of the living.
There have been 300,000 deaths in India due to Covid-19 as of May 25, according to the Union Ministry of Health & Family Welfare website. The number of Coronavirus cases are around 25 million. Behind every statistic lies a poignant, personal story about the heart-rending experiences of individuals and families.
Take the case of Melroy and Janet who retired and returned to India in 2019 after working for nearly 30 years in the UAE. In early April, both in their early 60s tested positive for Covid-19. Melroy was rushed to hospital in Mumbai and passed away the following day. Janet who was quarantined alone at home was unable to do anything but remain in bed. Their three children who were overseas could not travel. The hospital staff cremated the body of Melroy and sent the ashes to Janet.
Janet sobbed and grieved alone. Their relatives and friends offered sympathies on phone but no one visited her due to the stringent Covid restrictions. She is recovering from Covid but the loneliness and grief is agonizing.
Another sad story is that of the Johns in Bangalore. The couple, both in their 70s, lived alone. When Mr. John who was suffering from fever for four days faced difficulty in breathing, he was admitted into a hospital after being rejected by three hospitals due to lack of beds. He died the same night. His son who lived in New Zealand was unable to come. Mrs. John, her maid, her driver and two others were the only people present when the body was cremated.
Lonely, distraught and grief-stricken, Mrs. John refused to answer phone calls, saying she doesn’t need words of sympathy; she needed help and support when her husband was ill and needed to be rushed to hospital. “There’s no humanity left in this world,” she told her elderly neighbour who hasn’t been going out for months due to safety concerns. Mrs. John is devastated that her husband had to go without traditional Christian rituals.
These are just two instances of deaths and the fates of the families during this pandemic. In the last year there have been several deaths of people whom we knew — friends, relatives, acquaintances, and others. There are numerous cases of people who ran from pillar to post to get a Covid-positive patient admitted to a hospital. In some cases, the delayed treatment only hastened death. In other cases, patients have died in the hospital and taken soon for cremation.
It seems bizarre but death in the time of this pandemic is a lonely affair, it has lost its respect and dignity. Even near and dear ones who can make it for the funeral are hesitant to attend fearing the risk of contagion and the protocols they have to follow. Covid-19 has changed our experience of death.
It is equally disturbing to read reports of people abandoning their own family members after the latter succumbed to Covid-19. The families may have their own reasons. A friend’s aunt did not attend the cremation of her husband because she was not only in quarantine herself but because she would not be allowed to see or touch his body which was clinically sealed in a body bag. “Where’s the dignity here,” she is said to have asked. When nobody from the deceased’s family turns up, hospitals have no choice but cremate unclaimed bodies.
While the dead depart, unsung and unhonoured, it is the next of kin that continues to suffer. The grief, the solitude, the anxiety, the distress and being unable to bid a dignified farewell to their loved one can take a huge emotional toll on them. The consequences of all this is yet to be known as It is the first time that people are experiencing such trauma following the death of a loved one after being used to social support from friends and family members and sharing their grief.
Strange are the times we live in. Given the severity of the deadly Coronavirus, we have no choice but to accept the grim reality and come to terms with it. That means seeing our near and dear ones in hospital gowns from behind a glass and letting them die alone, forsaking death rituals or ceremonies, funerals with social distancing and limited attendance and the inability to give dignity to the dying. As if all this is not traumatic enough, we must mourn and grieve alone.