Death is frightening, especially now when the deadly COVID-19 has claimed lives worldwide, so the hoi-polloi in Meghalaya panicked when the news broke that Dr. John L Sailo Rynthathing, a physician and philanthropist succumbed to the deadly virus.
Until April 12, Meghalaya and Sikkim were the only Indian state that had no positive cases of COVID-19, and the State until Saturday morning has recorded a total of 10 numbers of active novel coronavirus. The victims are mostly either the relatives or helpers of Sailo.
The last journey of the 69-year-old, the founder of Bethany hospital, who had cared the lives of thousands in this State, and even for President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam in 2015, was not a smooth one, as ignorant people disallowed either to give him a decent burial or cremation.
Kalam had collapsed while delivering his lecture “creating a liveable planet” at the Indian Institute of Management, Shillong which is a few kilometers away from the hospital.
The Missile-man was rushed to Bethany hospital but breathed his last at the hospital. A year later Sailo with then Home Minister Roshan Warjri inaugurated the APJ Abdul Kalam Accident and Injury Care Unit at Bethany hospital.
Sailo was the first person in Meghalaya to have tested positive for Covid-19 on April 13, and in less than 48 hours, the physician died in the early hours of April 15.
As the news spread that Sailo has succumbed to COVID-19, the Dorbar Shnong (Village Council) of Nongpoh in Ri-Bhoi district disallowed the burial of the physician in his own plot of land at Nongpoh.
Panic-stricken residents of Jhalupara area inhabited mostly by non-indigenous people in this mountainous state capital blocked the road leading to the government-owned crematorium to prevent the cremation of the dead physician.
On their part, the Dorbar Shnong of Nongpoh and the local residents of Jhalupara said that their refusal to allow the burial or cremate Sailo’s dead body was mainly due to fear of COVID-19.
Moreover, they blamed the government for not educating them on COVID-19.
In fact, the delay of the funeral by the day has not only stunned the Meghalaya government headed by a young Chief Minister Conrad Sangma, who has taken the task of coordinating to himself to stem the deadly virus, but also the public at large.
Sangma and his Deputy Prestone Tynsong had to play the role of trouble-shooter to find a space to bury the mortal remains of Sailo amid public criticism for the government’s failure in the tackling the COVID-19.
The government got a breather at around 7 p.m on April 15, when elders of the Presbyterian Church Raitsamthiah spoke to Tynsong informing him about the decision of the Church to allow the burial of Sailo at their Church Cemetery in Lawmali area, about 5 Km away from Bethany hospital.
Sailo was laid to rest based on the guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
Workers of Shillong Municipal Board, who wrapped themselves up in personal protective equipment, took the task of the pallbearers carrying the casket containing the mortal remains of Sailo from the ambulance to the graveyard.
Rev. Lyndan Syiem of the Presbyterian Church conducted the funeral service in presence of Rev. E.R.Tynsong, two of Sailo’s relatives and government officials.
An earthmover was used to interred the grave and the entombed casket with soil.
As the district administration failed to convince the ignorant residents of Jhalupara and Village Council of Nongpoh, the Meghalaya High Court Bar Association filed a PIL seeking judiciary intervention against the “incompetent” manner in which the Meghalaya government is tackling the COVID-19 outbreak in the State and also on the crisis arising out of the COVID-19 victim’s demise.
In its interim directive, a division bench comprising of Justice HS Thangkhiew and Justice Wanlura Diengdoh, via video conferencing on Thursday order the government to register cases against those who obstruct efforts to control the pandemic.
They also directed the state authorities sensitize the public especially where the cremation or burial grounds are situated to avoid any further unfortunate incident as had been witnessed on Wednesday.
Thangkhiew and Diengdoh also ordered the State authorities to strictly follow the guidelines on dead body management as prescribed by the Government of India and the World Health Organization, apart from notifying the same for the general public for their sensitization.
Voicing “deep concern and agony” over the delay in finding a resting place for Sailo, Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu today said that he was “deeply disturbed” by the “inhuman” incident.
“Such incidents are a blot on the society’s consciousness and of great concern for all of us irrespective of party, religion and region. There is an urgent need to educate the people and remove misconceptions on COVID-19 to prevent such inhuman incidents in future,” Naidu said, on his Facebook page.
Following this, the Meghalaya government has warned of initiating stringent action against any individual or group who tries to obstruct government’s effort in tackling COVID-19.
“We will take action against any individual or group who tries to obstruct government’s effort in tackling COVID-19 as per provisions of the Epidemic Disease Act, 1867,” Health and Family Welfare Minister Alexander Laloo Hek said.
Independent journalist and commentator based in Shillong