The number of deaths caused by COVID-19 could overwhelm the local capacity to handle dead bodies properly, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned on Wednesday.
Officials can overcome this risk through proper preparation and planning so that the dignity of the deceased and surviving family is respected, the ICRC said.
According to a statement by the institution, the failure to plan and prepare for mass casualties risks people being buried in mass graves, with few records and little understanding of who died and where the body was taken.
The suffering of people not knowing where their loved ones are buried could be devastating.
“Mass fatality planning doesn’t mean there will be mass fatalities. But it’s imperative that plans are made and, if needed, carried out to help lower the pain that families and broader society feel in the face of a high death toll,” said Oran Finnegan, the head of the forensics unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross.
“Undignified management of the dead is avoidable,” he added.
Even in countries not affected by conflict, funeral homes and morgues have been quickly overwhelmed by COVID-19 deaths.
In conflict zones, the situation could be even direr due to limited capacity to properly handle high numbers of deaths.
Emergency response plans should be established or activated now, before any crisis overwhelms responders and resources, to ensure the reliable identification and documentation of the dead. The process for obtaining death certificates, death registration and burial permits should be facilitated.
“People often don’t see the importance of forensics until it’s your loved one—your mother, brother, or child. Then, you care deeply about how a body is handled. If countries plan now, body management can still be dignified. If not, we could see mass graves and little understanding of who died and where their body is,” said Stephen Fonseca, ICRC’s head of forensics in Africa.
Changes or restrictions to funerals and burial practices can be hugely distressing for families, exacerbating their grief. It’s critical that families and communities have clear information about any necessary measures put in place to deal with high numbers of deaths. This helps to reduce the psychological impact on families and improve adherence to the measures.
When it come to the handling of the dead, the ICRC advises the relevant authorities that:
- The safety and wellbeing of staff managing COVID-19 deaths hold the utmost priority; health care workers and staff handling the dead must use appropriate personal protective gear.
- Respect for deceased individuals and their families is ensured through proper burials or cremations with identification and documentation.
- Authorities should ensure they have the physical structures needed for storage of bodies, enough burial space and perform burials or cremations according to cultural and religious needs.
Preventive measures should be especially adopted in detention facilities, refugee camps, and large city slums, including dispelling myths and ensuring preparedness to deal with a higher than normal number of deaths than current capacity can handle.
Many Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies have extensive experience supporting safe management of the dead during infectious disease outbreaks and are preparing to support safe burials in places where mortuary services are not readily available.
The ICRC is working on dead body management issues in regions around the world, including:
The preparation and planning for mass fatality events include determining the amount of space needed for burials. This is a necessary consideration for COVID-19 in the case that more deaths occur than can be accommodated.
Even if the death toll requires communal burials — or what are referred to as trench burials – plans can be made and adhered to so that bodies are buried in a manner that avoids commingling or ensures traceability.
“If African countries see a peak in cases like in Europe or the United States, our priority is to support authorities with their planning to manage the dead properly and respectfully, which includes avoiding hasty disposal of remains in unmarked graves. For a mourning family, this means having a specific burial place to visit. Planning and preparedness avoids further suffering,” Fonseca said.
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