Social media is a powerful tool, but it is also inundated with fake news. It is therefore sometimes difficult to determine the veracity of information. Consequently, when the initial reports of the burial of James Oyugi Onyango on April 12, 2020 started circulating, it was hard to believe.
One thought it was fake news. James was reported to have died of coronavirus and a video showed that he was buried without a coffin. Subsequent discussions confirmed that the burial happened in the dead of the night.
When the Health Cabinet Secretary held his daily news brief, on Monday, April 13, 2020 the issue was an agenda in his statement. His response, was, however, out of touch with international and national guidelines, constitutional standards and general rules of decency.
While in one breath he said that the issue would be investigated he went on to warn Kenyans that their cultural practices regarding burial would need to change in light of the pandemic. However, his statement was both out of touch with reality.
The Covid-19 crisis has challenged several long-held practices relating to burial. One is feasting during funerals. In most communities in Western Kenya burial arrangements take upwards of two weeks because of the expenses that must be met, including feeding the mourners.
During this period, though the government issued certain directives including outlawing huge crowds in funerals. With this feeding of mourners too went out of the window.
A budget circulating on social media pointed to how cheap funerals had become. Discussions in one such group urged that this type of budget should be the guide long after the pandemic had ended.
If these were the cultural issues at play and the object of the response by the CS, there would be no complaint.
However, there was no cultural contestation about the burial. Instead was insensitivity on the part of government and disregard for human decency.
Granted, Covid-19 requires special rules for disposal of the remains of deceased persons. The World Health Organisation has issued guidelines on the safe disposal of bodies in the context of the pandemic.
The guidelines have detailed procedures to ensure that the disposal process prevents infection of those involved in the disposal or the kin of the deceased.
This is a fundamental issue that cannot be negotiated. However, the guidelines are also explicit that cultural sensitivity must be adhered to.
Kenya’s own developed guidelines followed the WHO rules and targets preventing infection, controlling the spread of the disease and being sensitive to cultural prerequisites. Being sensitive is not the same thing as sticking to them, but neither is it about total disregard. If one surveys across the world, sensitivity and respected for the dead and their families remains a key concern even as safety health measures are adhered to.
Spain, for example, organised drive-through funerals, outside a crematorium so that loved ones would have a short period to pay last respects, a priest would be in hand to bless the family and deceased and pray before the body is driven off and the process repeated for next good.
All the health requirements are adhered to in the process, including limiting the number of family members to five or less and adhering to social distance.
Even New York, which has had the highest number of deaths globally, addressed itself to sensitivity, rebuffing claims of mass burials, but exploring at one time temporary sites till the pandemic is over so that the families can them give them a decent burial. The question of treatment with dignity was a high priority.
In Kenya, human dignity and respect for culture are constitutionally protected. It is not possible to undermine them under the pretence of public health.
Government must realize that Kenyans who lose loved ones are suffering. They need a shoulder to cry on. That shoulder cannot be one that mistreats the body of their loved one.
The government’s own guidelines recognize the need to not only involve the such families fully in the burial process, but to also both explain the necessary health measures as part of the disposal process but to also ensure dignity is maintained.
None of this was evident in the Siaya case. The government owes the family an apology