Coronavirus: countries could be overwhelmed with bodies, Red Cross warns

If proper preparations are not made, mass burials may be necessary

A contractor works on the expansion of the Sao Francisco Xavier cemetery in the Caju neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. As of April 21, Brazil has confirmed 43,079 total coronavirus cases and nearly 2,800 deaths. Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg
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The surge in deaths caused by the global coronavirus pandemic could “overwhelm” countries’ capacities to handle dead bodies, the International Committee of the Red Cross said.

The Red Cross issued a warning that authorities across the world must plan for “mass casualties”. If they fail to do so, the NGO said, they risk having to bury the dead in mass graves.

With more than 178,000 deaths globally from the novel coronavirus with worldwide cases climbing towards 2.6 million, already mass graves have been seen in virus hot spots.

In New York, aerial photographs have shown pictures of mass communal graves on Hart Island being dug for victims of the coronavirus.

In Iran also, satellite imagery has identified communal grave sites which have been created since the beginning of the outbreak in the city of Qom.

The Red Cross said the families of loved ones buried in mass graves will suffer.

"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 Finegan, the head of the forensics unit at the Red Cross.

"Undignified management of the dead is avoidable," he said.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the Red Cross is giving technical advice and recommendations on the management of the dead and burials to government ministries, forensic authorities and first responders. It is also in contact with religious authorities to raise awareness with the public about appropriate measures in these cases.

It says it is very sensitive to fears in the region of families not being able to carry out a proper Islamic burial if a loved one dies of Covid-19.

The Middle East has already witnessed communities preventing the burial of coronavirus victims due to fears of infection, it said.