Kenya defied WHO advice on Covid victims’ body disposal

Thursday, September 10th, 2020 00:00 |
Ministry of Health officials prepare to bury a Covid-19 victim in Bungoma county in July. Photo/PD/File

The government blatantly ignored guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO) regarding the burial of Covid-19 victims, it has emerged.

For more than five months, the government treated Kenyans to mental anguish as public health officials stormed burials of Covid-19 victims, clad in hazmat suits and conducted the ceremonies to the exclusion of the bereaved families.

Many families watched in disbelief as the officials supervising the burials that hardly lasted more than 15 minutes, hurled bodies of their loved ones wrapped in polythene bags into shallow graves.

In some instances, particularly in Nyanza region, bereaved families were even traumatised more as burials were hurriedly conducted in the dead of the night.

To add salt to injury,  relatives of the victims were rounded up and taken to mandatory isolation and quarantine centres for days, in the government’s bid to ensure that those left behind did not infect the community.

Rare confession

But on Monday, the government made a rare public confession that bodies of the dead cannot spread the virus and that the government was contemplating revising the Covid-19 burial protocols.

According to Ministry of Health Chief Administrative Secretary Rashid Aman, bodies of persons who succumb to the disease will soon be released to family members as long as rules are adhered to. 

This is unlike before when public health officials were tasked with full responsibility of handling bodies.

“When the pandemic broke out, some measures were also rather extreme in ensuring that we didn’t take any chance with the transmission of the disease,” Aman said.

But reports have now emerged that the government brazenly ignored the WHO guidelines on the disposal of the bodies of Covid-19 victims and went ahead to disregard all known cultural and religious burial practices.

According to a dispatch from WHO dated March 24 and addressed to all national governments across the globe, Kenya included, dead bodies posed no danger and only lungs of patients with pandemic influenza could be infectious, only if handled improperly during autopsy.

“To date there is no evidence of persons having become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who died from the disease.

Based on current evidence, the Covid-19 virus is transmitted between people through droplets and close contact, with possible spread through faeces. It is not airborne,” WHO stated then.

The global health body, while asking governments to accord the dead all the deserved dignity as well as respecting their cultural and religious traditions and families, cautioned governments against hasty disposal of such bodies. 

Whereas the government declared a blanket ban on autopsies on bodies of people who died due to coronavirus, WHO had okayed the exercise as long as adequate measures had been put in place, to ensure the safety of the pathologists.

“If a body with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 is selected for autopsy, health care facilities must ensure that safety measures are in place to protect those performing the autopsy,” the guidelines stated.

Stiffer measures

Interestingly, WHO had also recommended that belongings or personal effects of the deceased, such as clothes and other items could still be re-used by their surviving relatives, once they had been adequately cleaned with sanitisers and disinfectants.

WHO had also allowed viewing of the body, full religious ceremonies and use of coffins.

“Family and friends may view the body after it has been prepared for burial, in accordance with customs.

They should not touch or kiss the body and should wash hands thoroughly after the viewing,” the guidelines stated.

A cross section of doctors are now questioning the government’s stiffer measures on the burials of Covid-19 victims.

“We suppose the government may have imposed the stiffer measures in order to stigmatise the virus in a bid to instil fear among Kenyans and as such force them adhere to the laid down rules,” a medic based at Afya House who sought anonymity said.

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