Caught between exigencies of public health, an exclusive domain of the Executive, and the personal rights of a community, a bench of Justices D Y Chandrachud and Surya Kant requested solicitor general Tushar Mehta and senior advocate Fali S Nariman, appearing for Surat Parsi Panchayat, to hold deliberations along with concerned health ministry officials to find a middle path, in which the concerns of the Union government to prevent the spread of infection and the Parsi Zoroastrian ritual for disposal of bodies could be balanced.
The ministry in its affidavit through advocate Rajat Nair said the basic elements of the SOP is that the body should be fully covered and not exposed so that people who are handling the bodies of the persons who died of Covid, which may or may not include family members, must not come in contact with bodily fluids or secretions.
“Coronavirus, according to scientific evidence that has emerged so far, can survive on a dead body, in bodily fluids, secretions and moist cells of the dead body for up to nine days. A dead body will be considered as an inanimate surface and secretions from orifices will carry infected cells and will remain smeared on the body surfaces after death. An increased risk of Covid infection from a dead body to health workers or family members is unlikely when they follow standard precautions and SOPs while handling a dead body,” the Centre said.
It said the bodies of such infectious patients are likely to get exposed to the environment and animals, if not buried or cremated properly. “The OIE (World Organization for Animal Health) has also observed that the people who are suspected or confirmed to be infected with the Covid-19 virus should minimize close direct contact with animals, including wildlife. It has also been observed that several animal species have demonstrated susceptibility to the virus through experimental infection, and in natural settings when in contact with infected humans, although these infections are not the driver of the current Covid-19 pandemic which is human-to-human transmission,” it said.
“There is also evidence that infected animals can transmit the virus to other animals in natural settings through contact, such as mink to mink transmission, and mink to cat transmission, However, not all species appear to be susceptible to SARS-CoV-2,” it said.
“The OIE has also noted that there are valid concerns about the establishment of SARS-CoV-2 reservoirs in wild or domestic animals, which could pose a continued public health risk and lead to future spillover events to humans. The virus introduction to a new animal species from a dead body might accelerate its evolution, which could potentially impact surveillance and control strategies. In view of the aforesaid concerns, keeping the dead body exposed (without cover) without burial or cremation will not be a permissible way of disposal of dead bodies of Covid positive patients,” the Centre said.
On January 10, the petitioner’s counsel Nariman had submitted a written note indicating the manner in which the funeral rites of Parsi Zoroastrians who have died due to Covid-19 would be carried out at the Towers of Silence. He had said the proposed guidelines meet the concerns of the Union Government over public health and safety while preserving the sanctity of the Zoroastrian faith. The guidelines which have been issued by the Union ministry of health and family Welfare do not take into account the concerns of the Zoroastrian community in regard to the modalities ordained for funeral rites, he had complained.