A Covid-19 Samaritan

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For Sajad Ahmad Khan, arranging burials for the people dying from Coronavirus isn’t just an act of benevolence but a commitment to society reports Syed Samreen

Members of the Sajjad Khan initiative at work in a graveyard in Srinagar. Photograph: Special Arrangement

Sajad Ahmad Khan, 38, hailing from Srinagar’s Qamarwari area, has been a revelation to people in his locality for his exemplary work in the ongoing pandemic. He owns a travel agency and runs a departmental store but social work remains his passion.

Khan believes that pandemic somehow unveiled the insensitive side of people all around the world. Whenever someone is tested positive for Covid-19, the stigma that follows upsets him. The crises become acute in case of deaths when people avoid managing the burial.  

 “I will continue to arrange burials for as many Coronavirus deceased as I can till the time comes when no one will shame the dead and will easily agree to bury them,” Khan said adding the mark of shame and disgrace that has been attached to this disease is a huge test for the families of the Covid-19 positive. “Since the family members of the deceased are quarantined, the second relations and probably the neighbours of the deceased should possibly show up, but there are hardly a few people who accompany the departed from the hospital”.

People, Khan said, are afraid of lifting the coffin. “I’m surprised why,” he asked. “This is the very reason I want more and more people to join hands in order to end this stigma.”

Sajjad Ahmad Khan, an established businessman who is into social work especially voluntary grave digging. KL Image: Syed Samreen

After the first burial, Khan posted a message for the general public on his Facebook page Athwass urging youth to join hands and help him in the cause of managing a dignified burial of the dead. Following day, Khan received a number of calls from different people who wanted to work for him. He made it clear to them that he would arrange the burials with full protocol and that whoever came to the burial site had to be ready to be quarantined for around fifteen days. Those who agreed joined Khan in his mission.

Khan has now a team of twenty youth who work for him whenever he calls them up. They are divided into groups of four. When one group leaves for the burial, they immediately burn their PPEs and return home to quarantine themselves for the following fifteen days.

Whenever Khan receives a call, he immediately informs the group of four persons who have their turn, to collect PPE gears, masks, gloves and sanitizers from him.

“Even if I have to pay double for the protective equipment, I’m ready to do that because the safety of these boys is of utmost importance to me”, Khan said. ”One more thing that I provide them is a rope so that they have zero troubles in landing the coffin deep down into the grave.”

 All the equipment is purchased by Khan from his own pocket. He doesn’t ask anyone for funding.

 “I have my own manufacturing unit and produce PPE kits in bulk for anyone who is in need. I’m doing this work for God. It’s between me and Him,” he said.

 While managing the burials, he gets a lot of experience. One incident left Khan traumatized. It was when a non-local had lost his life to the invisible enemy. Khan and his team reached the spot, and to their wonder, the non-local wasn’t even given a little space for interment.

“We had an hour-long quarrel with the members of that locality over the issue of burying the non-local. I was shocked at the stigmatization of the disease” he said.

Somehow, the team managed to convince the people around and got the non-local tailor buried.

Sadly, the non-local person wasn’t accompanied by anyone but just a little boy. The boy, who heartbreakingly looked at his master being buried, wept and looked at him for one last time.

This wasn’t the only time Khan was left dumbstruck.  Once at a burial site, Khan heard a person shouting “The government should get the land dug up by JCBs and throw the bodies into the grave”.  That actually happened in Pampore where a JCB was used to dig a grave.

“Such is the social stigma created amongst us,” Khan cried. “What if we contract the virus? What if God-forbid we die of it? Would we want our bodies to be thrown into the graves with same dishonour?”

Khan said that the people who are sent by the government to dig the graves reach the spot in urgency, do their job and leave even before the body arrives.

“My job will be done the day no one will shy away from burying a body, the day not just family members but anyone comes up and buries the body with honour and respect,” he exclaimed.

Earlier Khan used to supply PPE kits for free to the doctors dealing with Covid-19 patients. He was taunted by many people for the work but didn’t stop doing it.

When he finally told his friends that he would now arrange burials, he was told that no one would talk to him, fearing that they might contract the virus.

But his compassion and goodwill overpowered the criticism of people. When asked about his family’s response to his work, he replied smiling: “Nothing. They’re just proud of me. That’s it,” he said.

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