Uncertainty over burial procedures adds to the inexplicable shock of losing one's father.
Parvez Miah, a lathe mechanic, faced such a situation on April 1. He was not allowed to bring the body of his father – a suspected Covid-19 victim – from the Bangladesh-Kuwait Friendship Hospital to his Nawabganj home.
"My father breathed his last on the evening of March 31. There were restrictions on seeing his body. No relatives from home came and I could not plan for his funeral. The next day, in the afternoon, a team of Al Markazul Islami Bangladesh – donning full-body white outfits – arrived and brought the body to Taltala graveyard," Parvez told The Business Standard.
Since March 29, Al-Markazul Islami Bangladesh – a charity organisation – has been conducting funerals and burials of Muslim Covid-19 victims from Dhaka, at the government-designated graveyard in Khilgaon.
Meanwhile, victims from Hindu community are brought to the Postogola crematorium. All the services are free of charge.
Since 1988, Al-Markazul has been volunteering for different social work – including burials.
As the fatality rate grew with the spread of novel coronavirus across the world, the burial of Covid-19 victims, following the World Health Organisation guidelines – including maintaining social distancing – became a major challenge.
In this regard, Bangladesh's government sought the assistance of volunteers from different organisations. Al-Markazul's founding chairman Mufti Shahidul Islam and chief patroniser Salman F Rahman responded positively, said Al-Markazul's acting chairman Hamza Shahidul Islam.
Currently, a 15-volunteer team of Al-Markazul conducts funerals and burials over two-day shifts.
Over the phone, the team leader Mohammad Zubair Hossain, a madrassa teacher, told this correspondent, "This is the first time I am volunteering for burials. Initially, we were worried and feared health risks, but it seemed odd and painful to us, watching on television that the dead bodies were being interred by excavators without funerals. Such a disgraceful burial is not acceptable."
"We thought, if nobody comes forward, bodies would be dumped like what we had seen on television. So we have joined this initiative," he said.
Now, many people have expressed their willingness to volunteer with Al-Markazul.
The average age range of the volunteers is between 25 to 40. Among the members, there are married women too. Presumably, the family members worry about the volunteers' health safety.
Zubair said, "My wife Tasnim was also worried. Initially, we did not inform our family members about the work. Later they learned of it from media outlets. Although they are still worried, they take it easily thinking that we are pursuing religious duties for the betterment of mankind. When we leave home, they only advise us to safeguard our health."
Every day, the volunteers wake up early in the morning and say their Fazr prayers. They eat light snacks as breakfast and then go to the designated Dhaka hospitals on call.
As part of the burial, the volunteers spray disinfectant solution – a mixture of alcohol and water – at first. Then, soap-water is poured on the deceased – enough to wet the body. Then the body is rubbed with a towel. The volunteers wrap the body with a shroud which is covered in a specially-manufactured plastic body bag.
Family members now can bring the body to their home but the pack remains sealed till burial.
"Usually, we return to our work stations in the evening. Seldom can we eat lunch as we have to remain busy with burials during the day time," Zubair said.
As the month of Ramadan is approaching, the volunteers have demanded the Health Directorate schedule a time for burials at night.
"Wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) for an entire day while doing heavy work under the scorching sun is really exhausting. If we are allowed to work at night, it will be okay," the team leader said.
"The morgues at Kurmitola General Hospital and Bangladesh-Kuwait Friendship Hospital have enough freezing capacity.
However, the DMCH does not. As it takes hours to get a health report of the Covid-19 victims, infected bodies are kept at room temperature," he added.
"Hence the bodies start to decompose. And we have to sanitise the bodies," Zubair said, adding that the team members willingly do the job because, according to the Hadith, participating in burials and funerals is a great virtue.
Al-Markazul's acting chairman Hamza Shahidul Islam said that for whoever joins the organisation, it is mandatory for him or her to participate in all forms of volunteer activities.
"We are like a family, and each of the members are Muslim scholars. So whenever an order to serve Islam and the nation is issued upon them, they willingly follow it," said Hamza Shahidul Islam.
The government provides the necessary PPE to Al-Markazul, while the big logistic support comes from The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
According to Patricia Fischer, the ICRC's forensics specialist, the international organisation has so far donated 600 body bags and shrouds to Al-Markazul Islami Bangladesh, Quantum Foundation and the Ministry of Disaster Management and Relief – to help with dignified burials and prioritising the health and safety of those who handle the bodies.
Till April 22, Al-Markazul volunteers have done funerals and burials of more than a hundred Covid-19 victims.
"So far, none of our volunteers have been infected," Hamza said.