Meet Bengaluru’s ‘Mercy Angels’, who conduct funerals for victims of COVID-19

While Bengaluru Urban has emerged as the district with the highest mortality rate in the state, these volunteers step in to give COVID-19 victims a dignified send off.
Covid death
Covid death

When a death is attributed to coronavirus in the news, most of us don’t know anything about the person who died. In the government medical bulletin, the name of the deceased is protected, and often, the only details we have about the person are their gender and age. Unless we know them personally, we might not think about the people who died, besides as a statistic.

But what doesn’t usually meet the public eye is the entire process that takes place after a person has breathed their last, battling the deadly coronavirus. Not many know what happens to the bodies of those who succumb to the coronavirus.

However, volunteers from Mercy Mission, a charitable organisation launched at the start of the pandemic, have stepped in to give COVID-19 victims a dignified send off.

At the time of writing, there have been more than 51 deaths attributed to coronavirus in Bengaluru. The group says that they have been taking care of all the bodies of deceased COVID-19 patients in the city.

“We take care of the funerals in exactly the way that they would in their own religion. If they mention that they are Christian in their intake form for example, we follow their preferences,” says Mohammad Ismail, a software engineer who dedicates time to the Mercy Mission’s activities, one of which is Mercy Angels.

“At first, we worked as Mercy Mission, with just raising awareness amongst people about the coronavirus, and how to keep themselves safe from any infections. Slowly, we saw reports coming out of New York and Italy about how their morgues were overflowing with dead bodies, and their crematoriums had no place for new bodies. Then, we decided to be part of the solution in our own city, before things got to that point,” says Dr Mehdi Kaleem, a doctor from HBS Hospital in Shivajinagar who is coordinating the efforts.

Hazrat Bismillah Shah Hospital, or HBS Hospital, as it is popularly known in Shivajinagar, has become the centre of activity during the pandemic. 

“We have had huge operations, making thousands of chapatis during the peak of the migrant exodus from Bengaluru, when trains carrying more than a thousand people each, were leaving Bengaluru. Every day, there were thousands of people leaving from far flung places in Bengaluru, and each person was given a pack of rotis, pickle, and toiletries,” says Mohammad Ismail.

As migrants continue to leave Bengaluru, Mercy Mission continues to step in to offer all the support they can in terms of food and toiletries, Ismail says.

But the issue of the system being overwhelmed with deaths held fast in the minds of the organisers at Mercy Mission, and they decided that they needed to do something about it.

“We held a meeting around March, when the first cases of coronavirus were being reported in the state. We came up with a proposal on how they would manage the bodies, and took it to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), who received the proposal willingly,” recounts Dr Mehdi Kaleem.

While BBMP, the city civic authority, has been focussed on tracing and testing with their COVID-19 war room, no specific arm has been appointed to take care of COVID-19 deaths in the city, which is where the group’s Mercy Angels stepped in.

“We use the ambulances from HBS hospital, but the BBMP does help us by providing PPE and takes care of the sanitisation process of ambulances after the bodies have been transported. We are grateful to collaborate with the BBMP, especially with Pankaj Pandey (Health Commissioner),” Dr Mehdi Kaleem said.

Since then, they have been able to reach out and help many people, who would have otherwise been faced with a huge problem on their hands.

“The people who we have worked with were overwhelmed with gratitude, and tried to pay us, but we are a strictly free service,” says Ayub Khan Jaffar, a 43-year-old who has taken up this work voluntarily. 

“One family was scrambling at a private hospital, since not many know who handles COVID-19 deceased. There is a lot of fear. No one (private hospitals) was willing to send their ambulances to transport the bodies. Finally, they realised that it is the BBMP who is offering this service, and they got in touch with us, and were extremely grateful to us,” Ayub adds.

Besides Ayub, there are five other volunteers, Dr Shariq Rafeeq, Veeresh BS, Sheikh Imran, Shabeer, and Shah Imdad (Chotu). Chotu is the youngest, at 27. Now, Mercy Angels is looking for more volunteers.

One would assume that this kind of work comes with a fair amount of risk. But Dr Mehdi Kaleem says that there is little risk in the process, as the government takes care to sanitise the bodies effectively.

“When the person dies, all the orifices in the body are sealed, so that no fluids can come out. Then, it is treated with disinfectants, and sprayed twice. The body is then wrapped tightly twice, and then is put in the body bag. Thus there practically no risk of infection.”

Still, volunteers are kitted out with PPE, and they bathe and wash their clothes after they finish the funerals. Ambulances are also disinfected every time they make a trip, in a 16-hour long fumigation process.

“We have to admit that when they put on the PPE, it is a whole other experience. Especially in the summer, it is very stuffy and one has to wear it for at least two to three hours at a stretch and people are dripping with sweat at the end of it. But the happiness that we get from helping people, it is like nothing else. We are so moved that so many people have come together to help others,” Dr Mehdi Kaleem says.

Donations have come to the organisation through people in their communities, especially during Ramzan, Dr Mehdi noted.

“Through Mercy Mission, we have seen how people have come together during a crisis and helped each other. We hope that more people come forward and take up this work, because the need will increase because we still have not seen a peak in coronavirus cases,” says Dr Mehdi.

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