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India's Covid warriors: Volunteers perform last rites, give dignity to unclaimed victims

Linah Baliga/Mumbai
Filed on May 15, 2021
Photo: Supplied

Some family members have been abandoning deceased loved ones for fear of contracting the virus.


Covid-19 is a lonely disease, where last rites have become a tragic, solitary affair.

At times, families who have lost their loved ones to the contagion are reluctant to perform the final rites and even refuse to claim the bodies of their kin.

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That's where Iqbal Ismail Mamdani's team of 20 men come in, treating these unclaimed Covid-19 bodies as more than a name tag, a body bag or a cadaver, and giving them a dignified farewell.

The worst of times have brought out the best among people, as these unsung heroes quietly perform last rites without compromising on rituals, such as the faith of the deceased.

At present, there are more than 250 unclaimed bodies of Covid victims lying in Mumbai's mortuaries.

Iqbal Mamdani of Mamdani Health and Education Trust said that his team has performed the last rites of at least 45 such corpses. Some of them weren't even Muslims, he added.

Mamdani even skipped the recent Eid Al Fitr celebrations on Friday, May 14 to devote himself to his noble cause and has yet to return home since he left on Thursday, May 13 night.

"During the second Covid-19 wave, we learned that the police were unable to dispose of all the bodies. They were hassled as the mortuaries across hospitals in Mumbai were overwhelmed with overflowing corpses," he said.

"The Mumbai Police’s joint commissioner was informed about the mounting corpses. Soon, we decided to join hands with the police to ease their burden. Mumbai’s infrastructure is bursting at the seams. The authorities at burial grounds, crematoria, and cemeteries are having a tough time in performing the last rites of the Covid-19 victims before the third wave begins,” he said.

Explaining the modus operandi of disposing of the dead, Mamdani says that the Mumbai Police and government hospital authorities inform his team about fresh deaths related to Covid-19. Later, an Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) carries out the necessary paperwork and hands over bodies to the team.

“Our work is a service to the society to treat the dead with dignity. It’s indeed a lonely time to die. Covid-19 has been devastating across the globe. It’s our duty to stand by each other and rise to the occasion as humanism is under threat. It's not just the job of the government and the health care fraternity to be at the forefront. It's the responsibility of the common man to come forward and help in whatever way he or she can," Mamdani added.

At present, the team is largely associated with Malwani Shamshan and Qabrastan in Malad. During the first wave, they had helped Bada Qabrastan in Marine Lines cremate over 250 non-Muslim bodies free of cost.

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While families of Covid-19 victims were present then, they were reluctant to perform the last rites owing to a growing fear of contracting the disease themselves.

This time around, however, some of them have simply run away and Mamdani and his team are doing the heavy-lifting on their behalf.





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