‘We were numb’: Kerala health workers describe burying baby who died of COVID-19

43-year-old Shameer K, a Junior Health Inspector and member of the COVID-19 special enforcement squad of the Kozhikode Corporation, was going about his duty last Friday, when he was called to perform a task that he’d never done before.

At 4 pm that day, Shameer buried the lifeless body of a four month old baby, lowering her into the grave himself.

“I can never describe what I felt when I held the baby’s lifeless body in my arms, and placed her into the grave. It is beyond description,” Shameer tells TNM. He still hasn’t recovered from the anguish completely.

The baby, a native of Malappuram, was the fourth COVID-19 patient in Kerala to lose her life and the youngest person to have died in the state after testing positive. Despite the baby being a native of Malappuram district, the funeral was held following all the COVID-19 protocols, at the Kannamparambu Kabarstan, a Muslim cemetry overlooking the Arabian Sea, at Kuttichira in Kozhikode. This was because she passed away while being under treatment at the Government Medical College in Kozhikode.

Shameer was one among the six people who held the funeral of the baby, including her father.

“I had the responsibility of carrying the baby’s body from the ambulance to the grave. In my nine years of service, I had not done anything like this before. I have two children, and my sister has a four month old baby. All these thoughts came gushing to me when we were burying her. It was the most difficult task I’ve ever had to do,” says Shameer.

Also for Valsan CK, Health Inspector of Kozhikode Corporation who’s also the leader of the enforcement squad and one of the six people who held the funeral, the episode is something that will be etched in his mind forever.

“I don’t know what exactly I felt, I had gone numb. But I should say that it was as if the baby was part of my family. It is with that much love at heart and respect that we bade her goodbye,” says Valsan CK.

It is with equal vigour and warmth that Valsan and Shameer underline that the task would have been impossible to perform without the guidance of one man — Dr RS Gopakumar, Health Officer of Kozhikode Corporation.

Dr Gopakumar is a name that Kerala will not forget in a hurry owing to the Nipah virus outbreak that took the lives of 17 people in Kozhikode district in 2018. In fact, the character played by actor Indrajith in the Aashiq Abu medical thriller Virus, which was based on the Nipah outbreak, is inspired by Dr Gopakumar, the man who courageously stepped up to conduct the funeral of Nipah victims at a time when people were scared to take up the task.

“Rather than me, it is my colleagues who have been affected the most. They had never in their lives done something like this before. Even though I had held the funeral of 12 Nipah victims, this one, funeral of the baby, touched me especially,” Dr Gopakumar tells TNM.

How the baby got infected remains a mystery

It was on April 21, at around 5 am, that the baby hailing from Payyanad in Malappuram, was admitted to the Kozhikode Medical College. The baby was brought into the hospital with a history of fever, cough and breathing difficulty. The baby was previously under treatment in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) in a private hospital for multiple complications like global development delay, congenital heart disease and anterior chest wall deformity.

According to the medical bulletin from Kozhikode Medical College, though the baby did not have a history of contact with COVID-19 patients or any epidemiological link, she was placed in the intensive care unit for COVID-19 as she showed symptoms of Severe Acute Respiratory Infection (SARI). Her samples were collected on the same day and she tested positive. But on April 24, the child had a cardiac arrest and succumbed early in the morning.

The officials are still in the dark about how the baby got the infection. The child was admitted to a private hospital in Manjeri with pneumonia on April 18. But as her condition worsened, she was referred to the Kozhikode Medical College.

Following the death of the infant on Friday, KK Shailaja, State Minister for Health, said that though it is not clear yet how the child was infected, according to the preliminary analysis, health officials have found a possible contact from whom she could have contracted the infection.

Baby’s father and mother continue to be in isolation

According to Dr Gopakumar, the father was allowed to attend the funeral only because he was tested negative once. But he says all precautions were taken while allowing him to attend the funeral.

“As he is still on the list of people who could be carrying the infection (a person has to test negative twice), he was brought into the cemetery in a separate ambulance. It is only after all three of us wore the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that the father came out of the ambulance. He was already given instructions by the hospital that he had to stay a particular distance away from us etc. We abided by everything, and within 10 minutes, the funeral was completed,” says Dr Gopakumar.

According to Dr Gopakumar, the baby’s father was sent back to isolation after the funeral. The mother also continues to be in isolation.

Dr Gopakumar says that the state is well prepared to handle tough situations like this, following recurrent disease outbreaks.

“When the Nipah outbreak happened in Ernakulam district in 2019, it was confined to a single Kochi native and the person recovered. We, the state, started giving training to health officials on how to handle funerals of people dying from deadly, infectious diseases. I had personally gone to Ernakulam to give the training, and now more people are being trained. Our past experiences show that we are more prone to viral infections like this. We have to train more people for this as limited trained human resources in such conditions is impractical,” he says.

However, he adds that no matter how much one has been trained, such missions can become an emotional drain.

“It is not yet two months since I culled about 9,500 poultry birds to prevent the spread of Avian Influenza in Kozhikode. At times, it is difficult. The feeling that one is like an executioner is saddening. But, this is duty and we will do anything to fulfill that,” says Dr Gopakumar.

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