COVID-19 relief work: Friends in need

Print edition : July 16, 2021

Sadiq Hussain (left) and Mohammed Nabeel Ahmed of Mercy Angels transporting the body of a COVID-19 victim Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Naveed Irfan Iqbal (left) and Tanveer Ahmed readying the body of a COVID-19 victim for cremation. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Mohammed Nabeel Ahmed at the Tavarakere open-air crematorium in North Bengaluru. Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

A group of volunteers in Bengaluru lend dignity to the COVID dead by organising their last rites.

On May 17, when Bengaluru was in the throes of the rampaging second wave of COVID-19, Tanveer Ahmed, a senior volunteer of Mercy Angels, received a call from the resident medical officer of a government hospital in south Bengaluru. According to the doctor, an approximately 70-year-old woman who was suffering from COVID-19 had succumbed to the virus two days ago. She had no relatives or friends and the number that she had listed as belonging to her next of kin was not functional. This meant that there was no one to complete her funeral rites. Ahmed, who instantly understood the situation, told the doctor, “Please get the necessary permission from the police and we will handle the rest.”

Ahmed, who is in his mid-forties, soon reached the hospital with Sadiq Hussain, another volunteer from Mercy Angels. As soon as the duo entered the mortuary, they gagged themselves because of the overpowering stench of rotting flesh. They realised that the power to the freezer box containing the corpse had not been switched on. Recounting the events of that day to Frontline, Hussain said that the body had decomposed. Overcoming a powerful urge to vomit, Hussain and Ahmed gently manoeuvred the body—which was ensconced in a body bag as per COVID-19 protocol—onto a gurney and wheeled it to an ambulance that was being used as a hearse by the Mercy Angels team.

Hussain, who also doubled up as the driver of the ambulance, headed to the Kalpalli Hindu cemetery where the body was buried. While the gravediggers at the cemetery had dug a pit, it was up to Hussain and Ahmed to pick up the body and lay it on the floor of the grave. In a video that Ahmed shared with this correspondent, the masked and gloved duo could be seen waiting until the grave was filled up and the red sand patted until it made a perfect mound. Only then did they rush to their next call of duty, which was ferrying another COVID-19 victim’s dead body on its last journey. It would be a long day and, as Ahmed recalled, they put in a 26-hour-shift starting from the time they picked up the corpse from the hospital in south Bengaluru.

The cruel passage of the COVID-19 pandemic in India accompanied by the successive lockdowns led to the emergence of a variety of non-governmental actors who stepped up to provide succour as both the Central government and the State government in Karnataka fell far short of providing adequate support during this crisis. Last year, more than 20 Muslim non-governmental organisations (NGOs) based in Bengaluru came together to conduct relief activities when the first national lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on March 24. This broad agglomeration of NGOs called themselves Mercy Mission and have been recognised for the widespread relief that they provided, which continues to this day.

Also read: Rising to the occasion in Bengaluru

Mercy Angels started out under the wider umbrella of Mercy Mission. As the dead started to pile up during the first wave of COVID-19, there was a real problem of ferrying the bodies to cemeteries and crematoria. Hearses belonging to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) were simply not enough to cope with the number of dead in Bengaluru and private hearses (often these were hastily refurbished ambulances or minibuses) were charging up to Rs.30,000 to transport the bodies. Relatives of the deceased were also apprehensive of the coronavirus, and sometimes they were quarantined as they too were infected, leaving scores of bodies piled up in mortuaries.

It was at this point that Mercy Angels began to provide their free service of picking up the bodies, irrespective of religion or caste, and ensuring that the mortal remains were sent off on their last journey in a dignified manner and according to the customs of their faith. Since then, thousands of people have reached out to the Mercy Angels in Bengaluru.

Several organisations and groups of individuals have come forward since last year for providing this selfless and risky service. What sets the contribution of Mercy Angels apart is the sheer number of funerals that it has been involved with—more than 1,800 so far, according to Ahmed. This figure becomes significant when one sees that Mercy Angels is a small operation and works with only four ambulances-turned-hearses and a core team of around 15 volunteers. A further 25 volunteers joined this core team for short stints over the past year. During the peak of the second wave at the end of April and early May, a single team of Mercy Angels was transporting and organising the funerals of up to 20 deceased every day.

There have been occasions, especially when a cremation was involved, when hearses would remain stuck in a long queue. On one occasion, a Mercy Angel volunteer, Zameer Baig, waited for 18 hours outside the gates of the Panathur crematorium until he could proceed inside with the body that he was ferrying.

“If I had to break down this figure of 1,800, we did around 1,200 burials or cremations during the first wave and 600 during the second. While the second wave was far more virulent, its time frame was also compressed with a spike in casualties only between mid April and mid June whereas the first wave was more spread out and extended between May and November last year with a few deaths even in December and January [of 2021],” Ahmed explained.

What also sets the service of Mercy Angels apart is that, while the group itself consists of mainly Muslim volunteers (two Sikhs and four Christians were also part of the group at different times), its service is completely catholic. “We have done ‘Amar, Akbar Anthony’ on at least 60 days and sometimes two to three cycles of ‘Amar Akbar Anthony’ in the same day,” Ahmed said. He used this handy mnemonic referencing the popular Bollywood movie to explain how a team from Mercy Angels would usually be involved in the death rites of Hindus, Muslims and Christians on the same day.

“While we may have ferried some 800 Muslim bodies, more than 500 were Christian and the remainder were Hindus of all castes. We have even had to transport the bodies of a few Buddhists and Sikhs,” Ahmed said. He specifically mentioned Lingayats while recounting his experiences because of an incident that remained with him: Ahmed was readying a Lingayat body for burial and according to the norms of that caste group, the dead are buried in a sitting position. While the relatives of the deceased had become numbed to the point that they advised Ahmed and his companions to bury the body as it lay supine, Ahmed insisted that he would rearrange the corpse in a sitting position to respect the religious beliefs of the deceased. Hussain and he did this tricky task, usually performed by specialists, even as rigor mortis was setting in.

There have also been situations when members of the group have been forced to perform the last rites or light the funeral pyre of Hindus because all the relatives of the dead person were COVID-positive. Mohammed Ibrahim, the owner of a popular chain of restaurants called Beijing Bites and a volunteer with Mercy Angels, recounted his experience: “I had taken the body of a Hindu man to Geddanahalli crematorium. His entire family was COVID-positive and while they had arranged for a pandit, someone had to circle the pyre three times with a pitcher of holy water. I performed this task because I feel that if I participate in another person’s death rituals, my religious beliefs will not diminish in any way.”

Ahmed narrated another poignant anecdote. “I remember that I had taken the body of a Bengali lady of around 40 years to the open-air crematorium. When the time came to light the pyre, her husband, who was present and was devastated by the death of his wife, said that he could not burn his wife. I stepped in at that crucial time and lit the pyre,” he said.

The group has even started an “ash bank” to preserve the ashes of the deceased. “In a few cases, we have collected the ashes of the cremated bodies and stored them in a locker because the relatives of the deceased are abroad or remain quarantined as they recover from the infection. Ashes are also not supposed to be taken home and have to be immersed. We have 10 urns in the ‘ash bank’ right now,” a volunteer called Ikram Ahmed Khan said.

Working in this high-risk atmosphere of transporting COVID-19 corpses has not been easy for the Mercy Angels, although the cheerful demeanour of group members belies the darkness of their task. Ibrahim himself was afflicted with COVID-19 along with his entire family. A volunteer, Naveed Irfan Iqbal, recently rejoined the group after recovering from COVID-19. “This was the second time that I got COVID. I was infected last year as well, but I’m back now,” said Iqbal, who is a businessman. Another volunteer, Nasrullah Shariff, lost his father to COVID-19 last year, but this did not deter him from plunging fearlessly into the gory task, once more armed with only a mask and a pair of gloves for his safety. The group has lost two of their fellow volunteers to the deadly virus.

Also read: COVID-19 surge in rural Karnataka

In early May, when Bengaluru was reporting more than 20,000 COVID-19 cases every day, Tejasvi Surya, who represents the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Parliament from Bengaluru South constituency stalked into the BBMP South Zone COVID-19 war room and accused 16 Muslim contractual employees of being involved in a “[hospital] bed booking scam”. In a calculated move that intended to communalise the pandemic, in a throwback to last year’s demonising of the Tablighi Jamaat, simultaneous messages began to be circulated on social media listing these men by name and accusing them of being “terrorists” who were “killing Bengalureans”. Astute journalists immediately pointed out that even if Surya had unearthed a scam, he was selectively targeting Muslims as there were more than 200 employees in that particular war room.

Around that same time, the volunteers of Mercy Angels were scrambling across the city picking up dead bodies from hospitals and homes and, sometimes, even transporting the deceased to towns outside Bengaluru such as Nelamangala, Chintamani, Hoskote, Channapatna, Kuppam, Siddalghatta, Belagere and Ramanagara. One would imagine that Surya’s blatantly communal accusation would have dented their spirit at that time. But the group’s volunteers dismissed Surya derisively as a “communal bigot”. Said Ibrahim: “This is my city and my country. Regardless of what the right-wing narrative says or anyone else says, these are my people. We have to do whatever best we can.”

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