No Resting Place for Iraq's Coronavirus Dead
For Saad Malik, losing his father to the novel coronavirus was only the beginning of his nightmare. For over a week, cemeteries across Iraq refused to allow the elderly man's burial.
Fearing the respiratory illness could somehow spread from the corpses to nearby population centers, Iraqi religious authorities, tribes and townspeople have sent the bodies of COVID-19 victims back to hospital morgues, where they are piling up.
"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 AFP, his voice laced with bitterness.
Armed men claiming to be tribal leaders threatened Malik, his family and his friends, saying they would set fire to his car if they tried to bury the body in their area.
"Can you imagine that across this huge country Iraq, there aren't a few square meters to bury a small number of bodies?"
Northeast of the capital Baghdad this week, tribal figures prevented a team of health ministry officials from burying four bodies in a cemetery the state had specifically designated for COVID-19 victims.
When the delegation tried to take the bodies to another burial ground southeast of Baghdad, dozens of local townspeople turned out in protest.
Ultimately, the bodies were returned to the morgue.
One Iraqi living near Baghdad told AFP "we decided to block any burials in our area."
"We panicked over (the health of) our children and families."
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the global response to the pandemic, coronavirus is transmitted through droplets and surface contact.
There is no scientific evidence yet that it could spread via corpses, according to Iraqi health ministry spokesman Seif al-Badr.
He said the government was taking all possible precautions when burying bodies, including wrapping them in bags, disinfecting them and placing them in special coffins.
An Iraqi medic in Najaf told AFP the health ministry had tried to intervene directly to convince Najaf authorities to allow burials of COVID-19 victims, to no avail.
The medic said he had witnessed one widower beg authorities to release his wife's body.
"Just give me the body and I'll bury her in my own home," the heartbroken husband had said.
"This is the situation after just 40 deaths. What happens if it gets worse? Where will we put the bodies?" the medic asked.