Mourning Iraqi Villagers Refuse to Bury Coronavirus Dead

Iraqi mourners, wearing masks, walk on February 25, 2020 with the coffin of a deceased relative through the courtyard of the shrine of Imam Ali for prayers during a funeral in the holy Iraqi central city of Najaf, where the first case of coronavirus COVID-19 has been documented in Iraq. …
HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP via Getty

Fears the Chinese coronavirus might spread from corpses to nearby populations has prevented the burial of many people in Iraq who have died from the respiratory illness, reports revealed Monday.

Iraqi religious authorities, tribes, and townspeople have been sending the bodies of virus victims back to hospital morgues across the country.

Saad Malik recently lost his father to the illness. According to Malik, multiple cemeteries had refused the man’s burial.

“We couldn’t hold a funeral for him and haven’t been able to bury his body, even though it’s been more than a week since he died,” Malik told Agence France-Presse (AFP) in an interview on Monday. Islamic religious tradition calls for a person to be buried as soon as possible after death, usually within 24 hours.

Reports indicated that the burial refusals had continued. Northeast of Baghdad – Iraq’s capital – tribal figures prevented a team of health ministry officials from burying four bodies in a cemetery specifically designated for Chinese coronavirus victims. When the health officials attempted to take the bodies to another burial ground southeast of Baghdad, dozens of locals stopped them.

The bodies were returned to the morgue.

Both government and religious leaders have reassured the Iraqi public that the burial of Chinese coronavirus victims poses no threat to the health of nearby populations. Iraqi health ministry spokesman Seif al-Badr has publicly stated that there is no scientific evidence yet that the Chinese coronavirus could spread via corpses. The country’s top Shiite cleric has also urged authorities to help bury Chinese coronavirus victims. Despite these calls to facilitate burials, resistance remains.

One Iraqi medic who had tried unsuccessfully to intervene directly with authorities to allow burials in Najaf, a shrine city in Iraq, wondered how the country would cope if the Chinese coronavirus outbreak grows worse. Speaking to AFP in an interview published on Monday, the medic said, “This is the situation after just 40 deaths. What happens if it gets worse? Where will we put the bodies?”

Iraq’s struggle to cope with the Chinese coronavirus comes as health experts warn the country will soon experience a “spike” in cases. On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said Iraq will likely see a “spike” in its number of Chinese coronavirus infections within the next ten days due to an increase in lab testing capacity.

Iraq has 630 cases and 46 deaths from the Chinese coronavirus.

The report of an expected increase in Iraqi cases follows news on Sunday that another Middle Eastern nation, Syria, confirmed its first death from the Chinese coronavirus. According to WHO, Iraq now has the second-highest number of Chinese coronavirus-related deaths across the Eastern Mediterranean region after Iran.

At press time Monday, Iran claimed to have 41,495 infections and 2,757 deaths from the Chinese coronavirus. However, the real number of cases in Iran remains unknown. Iran’s exact Chinese coronavirus numbers remain highly disputed by health officials, including Iranian government officials who have accused Tehran of lying.

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