Families abandon dead relatives as Covid-19 fear and stigma grips Pakistan

Ben Farmer
A man wears a protective face mask as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease continues, in Karachi, Pakistan.  - Akhtar Soomro /Reuters 
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Fear and stigma around the new coronavirus in Pakistan are leading to families abandoning dead relatives who have tested positive for Covid-19, doctors and police say.

Officials across the country said they were seeing cases of families refusing to collect bodies of the dead from hospitals, or deserting them in their homes.

Efforts to tackle the pandemic are being hampered by public suspicion and resentment at precautions, as well as rumour and conspiracy around the disease.

Strict precautions around funerals for victims have led many to believe they are at their most infectious after death. People also fear being forced into government quarantine centres where they will be mistreated, or are afraid of being ostracised from their communities.

A man wears protective mask in a public transport, during partial lockdown in Karachi, Pakistan - Shutterstock

Police in Ferozwala in Punjab said in one case earlier this week they had been called to a home after reports a body was inside. They found the body of a retired professor, Zahee Ahmed Zaheer, who had died of the disease outbreak and been locked in and left by his family.

Several houses in the same street had also been evacuated, police said. The family had left the deceased unattended due for fear of contracting the virus or being forced into quarantine.

Such cases are not unusual, doctors in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province told the Telegraph. “The people fear that they will get infected and will die, therefore, they abandon the dead bodies of their near and dear ones,” said Dr Muhammad Naeem, a doctor at one hospitals in Malakand district.

In another case reported this week the the Pakistani media, a youth in Dharampura hid in his room after he started showing symptoms and his neighbours turned on his family. He was later found dead.

Dr Zahoor Islam, another medic in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said: “People are more afraid from dead bodies than alive Covid-19 patients. The reason is the strict strict operating procedures under which they are buried.”

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In one case in Mardan, a 51-year-old man had fled hospital after testing positive. His family would not let him back in the home and when he returned to hospital and later died, no one would come to his funeral, which had to be conducted by police.

Cases have spiked recently in Pakistan after restrictions were eased last month and people socialised during holidays to mark the end of Ramadan.

More than 1,800 have died and there have been nearly 90,000 cases. A peak is still weeks off, epidemiologists estimate. Iftikhar Hussain, a psychiatrist, said the government had failed to set out a clear public health message.

People were widely ignoring social distancing precautions, but were also terrified of those with the disease. “The government has mishandled the corona pandemic due to which it has been stigmatised,” he said.

Hearsay and rumour have also swirled around the coronavirus. Popular rumours include allegations that hospitals are being paid for each dead body, the whole disease is a foreign conspiracy, or anyone going to hospital gets a poison injection.

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