Grave digger Ahmad Shehadeh, 50, has throughout his career buried thousands of corpses, many of whom died from diseases, wars and Israeli attacks.
But Shehadeh never anticipated that one day he would have to wear protective gear and a mask while burying the corpses of victims of the deadly coronavirus.
Shehadeh says he has to “work with great caution and perform the ceremonies so the dead are buried.” He told The Daily Star that for his safety, he works in cooperation with volunteers from the Islamic Medical Society in the south.
Families of the deceased watch from a distance to protect themselves from infection, Shehadeh said. “Sometimes I preform the prayers for the dead myself instead of a cleric,” he added.
The Hezbollah affiliated Islamic Health Society’s Civil Defense team is an emergency entity that provides medical services and helps bury those who have died due to coronavirus.
Because coronavirus is mainly spread through respiratory droplets when people cough, sneeze or talk, it is unlikely to be passed on by a dead body. But because there is a small chance of infection, special care and training is required to protect those in contact with deceased coronavirus victims. The Islamic Health Society teams have been trained to carry out transfer and burial procedures with caution.
Lebanon has witnessed an alarming surge of coronavirus infections over the last two months, and with it a higher number of deaths. Saturday confirmed a record 1,280 new coronavirus cases, the sixth time this month that the number of new cases has exceeded the previous high. A total of 340 people have died from coronavirus complications since the virus was first detected on Feb. 21.
“We always do tests to see if we have caught the infection,” said Abu Bilal, a volunteer for the Islamic Health Society who helps bury the bodies of coronavirus victims. “You have to overcome the fear of a coronavirus infection and work professionally from the moment you receive the body until the dirt rests on it,” Bilal said.
Head of Civil Defense in the south’s second district, Khodor al-Haj Ali, said the team has buried 40 people from Sidon, Nabatieh and refugee camps in the area who died due to coronavirus complications. The deceased ranged from 50 years of age to 90.
Fadi Salama, an official from the Islamic Medical Society in Sidon, said that five coronavirus victims were buried in the city. “We have allocated an ambulance for this specific purpose and we do not use it for anything else,” Salama said regarding the transfer of the bodies.
The American University of Beirut’s Global Health Institute said that Lebanon had the second-highest number of active cases per million people among Arab countries. Lebanon trailed Bahrain with 2,628 cases per million, compared to 3,918 per million in the Gulf kingdom.
It called this data “very alarming” and also challenged misinformation that only old people die from COVID-19, pointing out that 22 percent of the people who have died in Lebanon from the disease are younger than 60. “These figures will likely change as the health care system becomes overloaded,” it added.