Death Rights and Death with Dignity During Pandemic

Author: Shrasti Awasthi, University of Mumbai Law Academy

Briti Das, Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad

Editor: Mohit Meena, Gujarat National Law University

Introduction

COVID-19 is a highly contagious infection with no proven cure. Worldwide there are 22.8 million positive cases with every 1 lakh cases increasing every day. Right now, India has 2.98 Million cases, though the recovery rate is up to 75% but there is still no cure to this virus and once infected with this virus then it all depends on the persons immunity system.


In these hard times people are still not realising the situation that we are in and still demands all their rights which are suspended/amended due to this pandemic.


Recently Labour laws were suspended in UP. The main basis of the changes is due to the increasing number of COVID-19 cases and containment zones rendering employers to fall in hard times. The changes in the law applies to both new businesses and existing businesses being set up. Few of the amendments include the increase of work hours and the increase in overtime, the registration time of a company being one day instead of 30 days and the industrial units being exempt from many of the provisions under the Industrial Disputes Act, 1947.


The changes may seem abrupt, but the rationale behind the changes is to attract more investment in the industries and the encourage industry activity. The changes also aim to bring transparency to the administrative procedures and the to create opportunities of employment for the employees who have had to migrate back to their home towns during the pandemic. The state governments are also trying to generate income which has slowed during the lockdowns.


Among the many rights which have been suspended/amended, one of the rights which is amended due to this pandemic is the death right and death with dignity.


Death Rights

v Right to decent funeral: - Back in 2002, an important issue was raised in the Supreme Court as to the rights of deceased to have a decent funeral as per their religious belief and the obligation of the State towards homeless people, dying on the roads, Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan v. Union of India[1], While the Court refused to issue any direction, it did acknowledge that the Government should take all the possible steps to give a decent burial to the unclaimed dead bodies found on the road. Similar directions were given in 2013, when the issue of disposal of unclaimed bodies found in railway areas came to Supreme Court.

v Right to die with dignity: - Whenever ‘right to decent burial’ is violated, it can be said that ‘right to death with dignity’ is infringed too. On 9th March 2018, a 5-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court in the celebrated case of Common Cause v. Union of India, while dealing with the case of euthanasia, set the stage for acknowledgement of constitutional right to die with dignity. It was contended that right to die with dignity is inseparable and inextricable facet of right to life with dignity. While adverting to the situation of a dying man who is in a persistent vegetative state, the Judges pointed out that his process of natural death had already begun and since the death is imminent and certain, he has a right to die with dignity. In this regard, the Court held that right to die with dignity is a fundamental right and thus, an integral part of Art. 21. Right to live a dignified life extends up to the point of death including the dignified procedure of death. And if we interpret this ‘dignified procedure of death’, it will extend to dignified disposal of the deceased as well.

Also, In India, [2]section 297 of the Indian Penal Code protects the rights of the deceased from any form of indignity. This includes acts that cause disturbances to people assembled for funeral ceremonies. However, several reports have emerged in the media of disregard for the legal code. Local communities have restricted the transport of dead bodies for funeral processes, have resisted burials and cremations and have often resorted to mob violence against the bereaved. There have even been reports of family members of the deceased refusing to perform funerary rituals for fear of transmission.

Issues

The current issue is that people still are not understanding the situation that it a very contagious virus with no cure though the recovery rate is high but you still can’t ignore the fact that we are in a pandemic. They still want to cremate the dead coronavirus patients in the same old religious way which they have been doing till now, and as this virus spreads fast people needs to understand that certain changes need to be made to assure the safety of everyone while following the religious practices.


Government has issued guidelines to help follow their religious practices while keeping them safe from novel coronavirus.

Guidelines by Government

The government released the guidelines by saying - Handling last rites of the deceased now comes with specific guidelines While viral diseases can be tricky for those who are handling the patients or dead bodies, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare further said that there is hardly any increase in risk of getting COVID-19 infection from a dead body to the healthcare workers or family members. The government has allowed both the burial and cremation as per the faith.

However, there is a standard procedure that all health workers and family members need to adhere to. Here are some guidelines recommended by the Health Ministry for managing funerals.


Guidelines for handling deceased at cremation/burial ground

· Firstly, it is important to inform the burial or cremation ground about COVID-19 patients and sensitise that there is no additional risk.

· The members of the ground should wear gloves, masks and follow hand hygiene.

· Relatives may be allowed to see the body of the deceased one time and the bag should be unzipped by a staff member.

· All religious rituals that do not require touching the body can be performed.

· The government has not allowed touching, hugging or bathing the body.

· All the family members and the staff at the ground are to perform hand hygiene before and after the cremation or burial.

· In case of cremation, the government said that there is no risk from ash, therefore it can be collected later.

· Large gatherings for the last rite should be avoided. It is possible that close family members of the deceased may have symptoms for COVID-19 infection or shedding the virus.


Guidelines for health care workers while handling dead bodies of COVID-19 infected

· The basic guidelines for hand hygiene is to be followed.

· Workers are expected to use eyewear, masks, gloves and water-resistant aprons.

· All the sharps are to be handled carefully.

· All the instruments and devices used for the dead body along with the bag housing the body should be disinfected.

· All the linens as well as environmental surfaces should be disinfected.

It is to note that the Coronavirus is transmitted through droplets. Therefore, if the deceased body is handled with standard procedure, chances of transmission are unlikely.

Conclusion

Though the government has issued guidelines for the safe cremation/burial but still people need to take more precaution while going into the crowd.


Faith leaders can play a big role by ensuring that their departed loved ones receive respectful, appropriate funerals and burial rites, even in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and educating them to take proper measures. It is good to follow the religious practices but if it can lead to more corona positive cases then we must act according to the guidelines and take proper precautions.

[1] Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan v. Union of India, AIR 2002 SC 554). [2] Central Government Act, India, Section 297 in The Indian Penal Code, Indian Kanoon, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/15048/ .

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