Since mid-March, morgues in Iraq have been filling up with the bodies of people who died from the COVID-19 coronavirus because there is nowhere to bury them. While the authorities have designated special burial grounds for victims of the virus, the people who live near those sites have been blocking burials-- fearful that the bodies will bring the virus to their locality. 

On March 24, residents of the town of Nahrawan, located 35 kilometres east of Baghdad, gathered near the town cemetery to protest against Baghdad health officials’ plan to bury COVID-19 victims there. After two full days of protests, Nahrawan’s residents succeeded in blocking the burials and the authorities took their bodies back to Baghdad.

This video posted on March 24 shows locals refusing to let sanitation workers and families bury eight people who died of coronavirus in a nearby cemetery. The locals followed them in a car right up to the gates of the cemetery.

A landfill was established near the town in 2015 and it is thought to have polluted the nearby soil. Nahrawan residents said it was bad enough that the government had turned their town into a landfill site, but that they were drawing the line when authorities tried to bury victims of coronavirus there, according to news website Raseef22, whose journalists interviewed protesters.

Our Observers in the region said that locals were also afraid that the virus could spread from the bodies if they were buried too close to inhabited areas.

However, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has said that the virus cannot be transmitted from a victim’s body unless you come into direct contact with bodily fluids or contaminated personal effects. The Iraqi health ministry has also detailed strict hygiene measures for the bodies of coronavirus victims-- they are first disinfected before being placed into a sealed body bag. The bag is then put into a coffin and buried four metres below the ground (the usual depth of Muslim graves is about 1.8 metres).

This video, which has been circulating online since about March 14, shows a burial taking place somewhere in Iraq. It stirred controversy online, with many  people saying that the burial didn’t conform to religious traditions or proper hygiene measures.
 
In desperation, the families of COVID-19 victims have turned to social media in the hope of raising awareness and securing burial plots for their loved ones. Dr. Jassab Ali Al Hajjami, who is the Director of Health in Karakh, located west of central Baghdad, has also gotten involved in the struggle. The families of several victims of COVID-19 reached out to him, including the relatives of a patient whose body was still sitting in the morgue of the Al Furat Hospital eight days after his death. Dr. Al Hajjami took to social media to try and help these families.

“We had to bring eight bodies back to the hospital without burying them”

Haji Firas Abou Moamel is a 42-year-old businessman from Baghdad who volunteered to help families of COVID-19 victims to bury their loved ones. He works with a team of young volunteers.
 
We’ve responded to calls from families in distress all around Baghdad. The Minister of Health found some land south of the capital, about 14 kilometres from the closest town, and was going to start procedures last week. But the people living nearby are afraid of those who have this virus, even when they are dead! People living in Nahrawan protested against the burials.

The land in question is outside of town. We are going to bury the bodies at a depth of four metres, in accordance with proper hygiene rules to follow during a pandemic, so the bodies don’t pose a danger to anyone.
On March 24, faced with the ongoing protests, we had to bring eight bodies back to the hospital without burying them.  They were all kept at the morgue for five to ten days while the authorities figured out a solution.


“Some families have even been threatened”

French news agency AFP interviewed the families of the deceased. Some of them said that they encountered angry and suspicious locals, who, in some cases, were armed, when they tried to bury their family members. Abou Moamel has started offering escorts to the families to provide them with additional security. 
 
Ever since we heard about the threats that the families are facing, we’ve been accompanying the teams that are in charge of burials. We use our own means to offer them additional protection as well as some financial support. Today, we helped the team bury 17 bodies around the capital.



 

“A lot of these people don’t know how COVID-19 is transmitted”

Doctor Abdelghani Saadi, the director general of Health in Rassafa, which is located to the east of Baghdad, says that communication on the part of the government is key to make sure that this type of problem doesn’t occur in other Iraqi cities in coming weeks.

In this video, member of parliament Hakem Zamli calls on the authorities to figure out an emergency solution for the bodies “that are piling up in the town of Sadr" (an eastern suburb of Baghdad).
 
The problems with the bodies started two weeks ago [Editor’s note: in mid-March 2020]. Local people were refusing to let us bury people who had died of the virus near their homes. We don’t want to force people. But the Ministry did make a public statement that a body that has been buried can’t transmit the virus. However, there are 40 million people in Iraq, so it is difficult to reach absolutely everyone.

Lots of people still don’t know how COVID-19 is transmitted. Things circulating on social media - like footage of people collapsing, dead, in the streets and in the hospitals - feed into a general fear around anything to do with the virus. People believe the virus will contaminate the ground where an infected body is buried, and that it will seep into their water and fields.
 
After the protests in Nahrawan, eight bodies were brought back to Baghdad. They remained in the city's Ibn Al Khatib Hospital until Monday, March 30, after an agreement was reached with the city of Najaf (160 km south of the capital) to bury the bodies in the Wadi Al-Salam cemetery, on the outskirts of the holy city.


Dr. Abdelghani said this temporary solution was a direct result of mobilization on social media:
 
Talking about this crisis on social media really broke the taboo around burials of people who died of coronavirus. Through Facebook posts and videos, we were able to explain the process of “sanitary” burials, which involves putting the dead in coffins [Editor’s note: This process is different from traditional Muslim burials where the body is wrapped in two layers of cotton without a coffin]. We were also able to reassure people that there were no risks to people living nearby cemeteries.
We were able to bury three people near Najaf in the past few days, with the agreement of their families. Being able to bury your dead is a human right.
 
This post by the city of Najaf explains that 13 victims of the virus were buried outside the holy city, in accordance with strict hygiene measures.

 
The Iraqi Ministry of Health released a statement that the number of deaths from the virus reached 64 on April 6.

Article written by Fatma Ben Hamad.