THE NUMBER of deaths caused by COVID-19 could overwhelm local capacity to handle dead bodies properly, the International Committee of the Red Cross has warned. Officials can overcome this risk through proper preparation and planning so that the dignity of the deceased and surviving family is respected. The failure to plan and prepare for mass casualties risks people being buried in mass graves, with few records and little understanding of who died and where the bodies were taken. The suffering of people not knowing where their loved ones are buried could be devastating.
"Mass fatality planning doesn't mean there will be mass fatalities, but it's imperative that plans are made and, if needed, carried out to help lower the pain that families and broader society feel in the face of a high death toll," says Oran Finnegan, head of the forensics unit at the International Committee of the Red Cross. "Undignified management of the dead is avoidable."
Even in countries not affected by conflict, funeral homes and morgues quickly have been overwhelmed by COVID-19 deaths. In conflict zones, the situation could be even more dire due to limited capacity to handle high numbers of deaths properly. Emergency response plans should be established or activated now, before any crisis overwhelms responders and resources, to ensure the reliable identification and documentation of the dead. The process for obtaining death certificates, death registration, and burial permits should be facilitated.
"People often don't see the importance of forensics until it's your loved one--your mother, brother, or child. Then, you care deeply about how a body is handled," explains Stephen Fonseca, ICRC's head of forensics in Africa. "If countries plan now, body management can still be dignified. If not, we could see mass graves and little understanding of who died and where their bodies are."
Changes or restrictions to funerals and burial practices can be hugely distressing for families, exacerbating their grief. It is critical that families and communities have clear information about any necessary measures put in place to deal with high numbers of deaths. This helps to reduce the psychological impact and improve adherence to the measures.
When it come to the handling of the dead, ICRC advises the relevant authorities that the safety and well-being of staff managing COVID-19 deaths hold the utmost priority; health-care workers and staff handling the dead must use appropriate...