Coronavirus: Dubai's silent funerals for victims of Covid-19

Strict limits on visitors to cemeteries and crematoriums – and the international shutdown of flights – mean friends and relatives are often unable to attend

Foreign workers stand in line as they wait to be checked for the novel coronavirus at a testing centre in the Al Quaz area of Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, on April 18, 2020. / AFP / KARIM SAHIB
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The body of the Indian worker who died from Covid-19 far from home was kept inside the ambulance in front of the crematorium, in case a friend came to say a final goodbye.

But nearly an hour later no one had appeared, and the workers in protective suits had to carry out their grim task.

In silence, the four men carefully moved the body, wrapped in a white bag, to a furnace where it was reduced to ashes that were placed in a silver box.

People would come here, around 200 to 250, to grieve and bring flowers. Now they die alone

Should foreign workers die in the UAE, their body is typically repatriated so families can bury them in their home countries.

But a death with the coronavirus means the body cannot be sent home – it must be cremated or buried in the country in which the person dies.

“The whole world is changing. Nobody comes any more, nobody touches, nobody says goodbye,” said Ishwar Kumar, a manager of New Sonapur Crematorium in Jebel Ali.

Before coronavirus, “people would come here, around 200 to 250, to grieve and bring flowers. Now they die alone,” he told the AFP news agency.

Most of the 166 deaths and 26,600 registered cases in Gulf countries so far have been foreigners, health ministries say. Most of them are from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the Philippines.

A few hours before the cremation of the Indian man – aged in his fifties and a partner at a tourist company in Dubai – the body of another, a 40-year-old Filipina beautician, was also cremated at the centre.

Employees transport the body of a COVID-19 victim to be cremated at the New Sonapur Hindu crematorium in the Gulf Emirate of Dubai on April 19, 2020. / AFP / GIUSEPPE CACACE
Employees transport the body of a Covid-19 victim to be cremated at the New Sonapur Hindu crematorium in Dubai on April 19, 2020. AFP 

Both had one thing in common on their death certificates – “covid pneumonia” as the cause of death.

The silver boxes, bought from a hypermarket, are handed over to the next of kin if they are in Dubai, or to the embassy.

“Most of them don’t have family members [in the UAE]. Sometimes their work colleagues come,” said Suresh Galani, another manager at the crematorium.

Despite halting commercial flights to stop the spread of the pandemic, governments in the UAE have been running repatriation flights for those who wish to return to their home countries.

But dealing with victims’ bodies is another challenge, as the presence of the contagious disease means that burial or cremation must take place immediately.

At Dubai’s crematorium, not all coronavirus-related deaths have the name of the virus on their certificates. While the virus has killed more than 177,000 people worldwide, the effect on the economy and the mental health of front-line workers or people in isolation is expected to exacerbate the crisis.

Vijay, an Indian citizen, said his brother Ram, 45, died of a heart attack while he was under mandatory 14-day quarantine, after coming into contact with someone found to have the virus.

Standing near the body in the cremation room, under a white ceiling fan, four of his colleagues spread flowers on the body before it was incinerated.

“Ram tested negative after he stayed in a room for two weeks,” Vijay said.

The laundry worker and father of three died in an ambulance while he was being taken to hospital after suffering severe chest pain.

“We are going back tomorrow to collect the ashes,” his brother said.

“We will send them home once the flights are back.”