Coronavirus: uproar in India over treatment of victims' bodies

Renewed anger after video shows an earthmover being used to transport remains of a man suspected to have died from Covid-19

Health workers carry the body of a man who died due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) for his cremation, at a crematorium in New Delhi, India June 28, 2020. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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A viral video showing an earthmover carrying the corpse of a suspected coronavirus victim has triggered anger and condemnation in India, where the bodies of people killed by the pandemic are being mistreated amid a spike in cases that has crossed the half-million mark.

The shocking footage from southern Andhra Pradesh state showed four municipal officials riding on the earthmover in full protective gear as it carried the 72-year-old man’s body, wrapped in a black plastic sheet, in its bucket for cremation.

It's really appalling to see a human being treated like a piece of trash

The septuagenarian, who had symptoms of Covid-19 but whose test results are still pending, died at home late on Thursday. His family members refused to take him for cremation over fears of contracting the virus, prompting neighbours to call civic authorities to remove the body.

Municipal officials said they sanitised the area and had tried to arrange a hearse or an ambulance to carry the man's body to the crematorium before buckling under public pressure to use the earthmover.

Jagan Reddy, the state chief minister, described the incident as an “inhuman act” as the government suspended two municipal officials.

But thousands of netizens lashed out at the government on social media, saying the incident exposed India’s failure in educating the public about the pandemic that has infected more than 5,28,000 people and claimed over 16,000 lives.

“It’s really appalling to see a human being treated like a piece of trash. Dead bodies deserve respect,” Twitter user Kashapogu Raju said.


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Many others accused officials of lacking sympathy while pointing to similar instances of coronavirus victims being treated shoddily.

Earlier this month in the same district of Andhra Pradesh, an elderly woman’s body was transported in a tractor for cremation.

This came less than a month after government workers were filmed tossing the body of a Covid-19 victim into a pit in Pondicherry, an enclave in the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu, which was followed by a video of a Covid-19 patient being put in chains at state-run hospital in central Madhya Pradesh state over fears that he might run away and spread the virus.

In Mumbai, one of the worst affected cities, bodies of Covid-19 victims wrapped in plastic were kept next to patients undergoing treatment in the crowded wards of a top hospital, while in Delhi, several patients died after hospitals turned them away due to shortage of beds.

Several families have abandoned their members and refused to perform last rites over fears that they too might get infected.

Experts say fear of contracting the virus is creating abnormal behaviour as a large section of the population suffers from social distress and paranoia caused by the pandemic.

"It certainly has changed people because now when they look at someone, they don't look at the person as a fellow human being but as a source of infection," Dr Pulkit Sharma, a psychologist, told The National.

"If we do not get a very quick treatment and the virus doesn't abate on its own, I think it is going to change our social culture and the warmth, our behaviour and our relationships," he said.