SRINAGAR: The family of a 72-year old man, Pir Habibullah Shah, who died of corona virus infection, went to bury him in the local graveyard.

To their utter shock, the local residents resisted the move fearing they might contract the deadly diseases. The family was forced to bury Shah at a desolate place in an orchard, two kilometers away from their local graveyard.

On April 2, Shah had developed severe chest pain before he was admitted to a local hospital in Baramulla. After his tests were taken for medical examination, it came to fore that he tested positive despite having no travel history. Later, he expired on April 17 in the hospital.

“But more than death, painful for us that how the locals and our neighbors stopped us from burying my uncle in local grave yard,” Nayeem Ahmad, nephew of the deceased, said.

Once the family came to know Shah had expired due to COVID 19 infection, Nayeem said the youngsters began preparing for his last rites.

“The grave in the local graveyard was dug. His burial was about to take place when some people from the locality strongly objected to his burial in the local grave yard which they thought could further spread the disease.”

At the time when they spoke to this reporter, Shah’s family was under home quarantine. The police had intervened and asked the family to bury Shah on their patch of land.

“This intervention of police was a shocker for our family,” Nayeem said. “It shattered us completely. We started questioning how can they (locals/neighbors) can do this to us. How can they blame the dead for COVID19 infection?”

Amid sobbing eyes, Nayeem said that few of the family members transported the Shah’s body to their apple orchard, amid heavy rains.

“When we reached the orchard, again people surrounded us and told us that we can’t bury the body there as well as it would spread infection,” he said

“This was a horrible and haunting experience,” Nayeem added.

After four hours of back and forth, with the authorities intervening, the people finally relented and allowed the family to carry out the burial in the apple orchard.

Shah’s is not a sole case. The stigma attached with disease has made the lives of those patients, who recover from the disease, also miserable.

Wasim Najar, 23, a student from central Kashmir’s Budgam district recovered from COVID-19 and was allowed to move home by the doctors.

"People are showing no mercy to us. My relatives turned away and I have even lost my friends because of this disease. No one comes near me.” Najar said.

“People treat corona virus patient as he is himself a disease. I have not done a sin be contracting infection. It can happen to anyone".

He said that he recovered from the deadly virus a week ago, but he is suffering from the stigma of being a Covid19 patient.

“The attitude of people has completely changed toward me," Najar said. “We have become outcastes”

Dr. Arshad Hussain - psychiatrist and professor at the Institute of Medical Health and Neuro Science Kashmir while speaking with The Citizen said that the social stigma associated with Coronavirus patients in Kashmir is due to the misinformation that has been circulated in the media and due to lack of public awareness.

“The citizens need to realize that the disease is not a disgrace," he said, adding, “The stigma is so bad that not even the deceased are spared. Burying the victims of the virus has become a very difficult task, though WHO has explained that dead bodies pose very little risk”.

"All acts of bullying and mockery of the victims of the coronavirus are dangerous and totally unacceptable. Refusing to bury the coronavirus victims has nothing to do with our religion, ethics, and values," he added.

Hussain said shaming and stigmatization of patients in Kashmir will lead to widespread and devastating consequences.

“Individuals with or at risk for stigmatized diseases may avoid seeking health care in order to avoid being stigmatized,” Hussain said.

“Most importantly those associated with providing care might suffer themselves from emotions of stigma and fear that in turn become a vital impediment in providing adequare care for the patients,” he said.

He said that if Kashmiris want to remove the stigma from Covid19 virus infection it’s imperative upon society to relook at the last rites of Corona positive patients.

“We all have been part of burials wherein people have died of contagious infections, even more contagious and deadly than coronavirus. Physicl distancing might seem specific for Covid 19 deaths, but can apply equally to the more infectious diseases. But we do not do that, and there are no cases of the living being affected by the dead, “ he added.

Cover Photograph BASIT ZARGAR