When Coronavirus Meets an Armed Conflict

Death and Dying in Colombia During the COVID-19 Pandemic

MARÍA FERNANDA OLARTE-SIERRA

Not all dead bodies are the same, just as not all deaths are equal. Some dead bodies are more uncomfortable than others.

The COVID-19 pandemic has rattled socio-cultural, biomedical, forensic, and funerary customary dealings of death and dead bodies. We are confronted daily by global and social media accounts of people losing their loved ones and having to go through mourning processes alone, away from family and friends, in home confinement, and unable to say goodbye to the dying person. Multitudinous funerals and memorials are matters of the past; at least at the moment.

In early April, Colombia’s Ministry of Health issued instructions on how to dispose of the bodies of those who died of COVID-19, as well as of those who died of other causes during the pandemic. Based on the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) recommendations, a funeral could take place with a maximum  of 10 people, where the death was not from COVID-19.  In cases of COVID-19, no reunions of any kind or size are allowed. According to the Ministry’s guidelines, all COVID-19 corpses should be cremated, except in specific circumstances: when there are no facilities available for cremation; in cases of unidentified individuals; and for the extremely poor. In such events, the bodies are to be buried. For the extremely poor, burial expenses are covered by the State. Protocols like this one have been implemented worldwide with some differences from country to country (For example, in Argentina and Mexico, cremation is not mandatory and families can choose a burial).

It is not news that the rising number of COVID-19 related deaths have become a challenge for many countries around the world, and especially so in places were unprecedented numbers of deaths occurred per day (for example in Spain, the UK, the USA, and Italy). Thus, in the face of an increase in the number of deaths that States need to manage, the International Committee of the Red Cross has called local authorities to prepare ahead to ensure that all the dead bodies are properly and carefully handled. Practices to be avoided include massive burials, poor record-keeping practices, and the misplacement of dead bodies. These recommendations are particularly needed in –but not limited to– contexts marked by armed conflict and violence where funeral homes and morgues may be already under stress even before the pandemic.

Disappearance and COVID-19

In this context, and in an attempt to avoid the collapse of morgues and cemeteries, the Colombian Solicitor General instructed the country’s local authorities to proceed and bury all the unidentified, or identified but unclaimed (UI/IU), bodies that they have in their facilities. Such a recommendation, in a country like Colombia, has profound political and social consequences and constitutes a cry for forensic bioethics[1] to be in place. The reason is pretty straight forward: Colombia is amidst an active armed conflict that has lasted for more than five decades (Fajardo, 2014) and the phenomenon of forced disappearance is a sad constant that dates back to 1970, yet is still present today.

In 2018, the National Centre of Historic Memory estimated that from 1970 until 2018 80,000 persons have been reported missing and are victims of forced disappearance in Colombia. Additionally, the numbers of unidentified bodies are also unfortunate. For example, in late 2019, the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences reported around 200,000 of them. Although not all of these bodies may be considered victims of forced disappearance, a significant number of them might well be. That is why Decree 303 of 2015 states that the remains of UI/IC bodies need to be preserved in cemeteries and morgues, since they may later become relevant for a forensic investigation of forced disappearance. Furthermore, when these bodies are buried, those in charge of safeguarding and burying them (grave diggers and cemeteries’ administrative personnel) must follow transparent and traceable record-keeping practices so that future relocation is possible.

Therefore, the reaction to the Solicitor General’s resolution of victims’ organizations, Human Rights defence groups and humanitarian forensic teams was immediate. They fear that the scenario provided by the COVID-19 pandemic may be fertile ground to either intentionally or unintentionally misplace or cremate  bodies of victims of the armed conflict, making their eventual identification and subsequent delivery to their relatives an impossibility.

Although the Ministry of Health has clearly stated that such bodies are not to be cremated, EQUITAS (an independent humanitarian forensic team), has warned about the possible dangers that these bodies face. The panorama is complex. A number of the country’s cemeteries, particularly those in rural areas or remote towns, are in precarious conditions. In these places, cemeteries are often on improvised stretches of land, and burying practices are sometimes performed by the community itself. Additionally, in these cemeteries and remote areas, the Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences is not always able to support all acts of burying. This may lead to a misplacement of dead bodies, even today, without the pressure expected from the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus, as many of such cemeteries are located in areas where healthcare facilities are unprepared and unable to face the pandemic, they might be confronted with a high number of COVID-19 related bodies.

Because of this, EQUITAS worries that in the rush to properly respond to the expected increase of Covid-dead bodies, UI/IU bodies, which –again– can be the bodies of victims of forced disappearance, may be lost forever. This could happen because these bodies are moved and buried with inadequate record-keeping practices, or because they are mistakenly cremated. Either practice hinders the possibilities of identification, and thus jeopardises victims’ reparation and the right to truth.

This, precisely, is the National Movement of Victims of State Crimes’ (Movimiento Nacional de Víctimas de Crímenes Estado –MOVICE) fear. This is a movement that has presence across the country, formed of groups with more than 200 organisations of victims of crimes perpetrated by the State, including forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions, selective assassinations, and displacement. For the MOVICE, too, the Solicitor General’s decision to “clear” space in the morgues put the possibilities of identifying victims of forced disappearance at an undeniable risk. To date, the movement has already denounced the mishandling of some dead bodies. They report anomalies and lack of transparency in the registry of bodies that have been cremated because they are allegedly suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases. In this sense, the MOVICE alerts the dangers of allowing the fear of the pandemic to enable local authorities and institutions to deny or ignore victims’ rights in the name of decongesting morgues and cemeteries, and especially those cases in which the State is responsible for the disappearance.

The MOVICE’s distrust on the State, its institutions, and its procedures are legitimate. It is not news that the Colombian State has committed crimes against its citizens. The case known as False Positives– the extrajudicial killings of youngsters lured far away from their home towns under false job offers, who were later found dead wearing guerrilla uniforms and claimed by the army as guerrilla members killed in combat- is just one example. Because of this, the MOVICE’s wariness serves to regulate and control State action; particularly so under the current circumstances in which inconvenient bodies can continue to go missing (and permanently get lost) in a rather seamless manner. Careless burying or intentional misplacement of these bodies will undermine the efforts of hundreds of families who are still awaiting information regarding a missing family member; as well as the ongoing investigations of reported cases of missing persons lead by the Prosecution Office, The Institute of Legal Medicine, and the Unit for the Search of Disappeared Persons’ forensic experts.

Closing comments

It is paramount and extremely delicate to properly dispose of dead bodies. On the one hand, public health is a priority and the bodies of people who died of COVID-19 need to be handled in a way that assures that no further spread of the virus will take place after the death occurred.  But on the other hand, no public health crisis can put victims’ long-fought rights on hold either. As much as the bodies of COVID-19 sufferers need to be taken care of in ways that safeguard the public; the UI/IU bodies of potential victims of forced disappearance also need to be properly managed. The latter supposes, too, a priority for safeguarding the society, however in terms wider than those brought about this pandemic. Forensic bioethics (Wickenheiser, 2019) may serve as a guide to care for those who died before the COVID-19 pandemic in the context of the Colombian armed conflict and remain unidentified or unclaimed. It requires forensic teams, gravediggers, cemeteries’ administration personnel to act respectfully and lawfully. EQUITAS’ call for protocols reinforces this need. By the time I was finishing this piece, a close friend of mine (a forensic expert in the Prosecution Office) explained that he and his team were preparing a protocol for how to respond to the foreseen cemetery crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of many, and it may claim even more lives if transparent protocols are not followed. As stated, these are times for forensic experts, gravediggers, medical examiners, hospital record keepers, and funerary homes to be ever more vigilant and to act ethically toward the bodies of unidentified or identified but unclaimed bodies. This is so because allowing the misplacement of these bodies will suppose a double disappearance for those who are missing, the prolongation of the suffering of their loved ones, and the continued degradation of a society that is unable to account for its victims.

There are countless caring actions to ensure that as many people as possible suffer the least possible during these uncertain and terrible times. Similar actions need to be in place towards the (long) death, the disappeared, and their families. Otherwise, the COVID-19 pandemic will bring about much more suffering, injustice, and fear than it has already.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Maria is a medical anthropologist and an anthropologist of science. She focuses on knowledge production practices and how they shape experiences of bodies, citizenship and social relationships, being forensic practices of victims’ identification of armed conflict my main point of entry. She has addressed these issues in highly biomedicalised contexts and health conditions that include prenatal testing, congenital cardiac diseases and, more recently, childhood cancer. She has been an independent researcher for an organization named Ensamble Investigaciones in Bogota. Currently, she is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant holder at the University of Amsterdam and working on a project titled “Shaping the conflict: The role of judicial and humanitarian forensic knowledge in co-producing collective accounts of violence. A case study of the Colombian (post) conflict”.

REFERENCES

Fajardo, D. 2014. Estudio sobre los orígenes del conflicto social armado, razones de su persistencia y sus efectos más profundos en la sociedad colombiana. Bogotá: Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica.

Olarte-Sierra, M. F., & Castro Bermúdez, J. E. (2019). Notas forenses: conocimiento que materializa a los cuerpos del enemigo en fosas paramilitares y falsos positivos. Antípoda. Revista de Antropología y Arqueología, (34), 119-140. Wickenheiser, R. A. (2019). A crosswalk from medical bioethics to Forensic Bioethics. Forensic Science


[1] Forensic bioethics refer to ethical frameworks that are specific for forensic sciences and the particular issues the deal with. See Wickenheiser, 2019.

Image from pixabay

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This publication was supported by a Wellcome Small Grant in Humanities and Social Science. Reference: 218699/Z/19/Z

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