Jusna Begum wakes up to her phone ringing at 1am. When she answers, it’s an inconsolable woman who has just lost her father to coronavirus.
This has become the new normal for Begum, despite her being neither a grief counsellor nor a medic or chaplain. Rather, she is the person who would usually have washed the bodies of the deceased – a fundamental Muslim ritual in death.
But with the Covid-19 outbreak, this sacrosanct religious process has been denied to thousands of families. Begum, 45, has been inundated with distressed phone calls, and she warns that the impact is worsening the mental health toll on a community already disproportionately hit by the pandemic.
“Not only did these families lose someone, they felt they couldn’t get closure as they were unable to go through the correct Islamic processes before burial,” she told the Guardian.
“We couldn’t wash the bodies at all so the deceased were being buried in the clothes that they went into hospital in. They came to us in a black body bag and left in that same bag without it ever being opened. Hundreds of bodies were buried like this.”
Funerals in Islam follow specific rites, janazah in Arabic, and the burial is preceded by a simple ritual involving bathing and shrouding the body, followed by prayer. Unless the circumstances of the death are unusual, the bathing of the body is nearly always carried out by family members of the deceased, with a mosque volunteer like Begum present to assist.
Begum, who is also the director of a domestic violence charity in east London, helped to wash the bodies of some of the Muslim victims of the Grenfell Tower fire three years ago, and said the ritual was an essential part of the grieving process.
“When I help people wash a body, they talk about their loved ones and tell little stories about them, they reminisce and have those moments to remember them again. I feel like I get to know them too – the person that has died – because you are surrounded by those that loved them.
“This time has reminded me of Grenfell – all that horror that the community suffered. There are many similarities even though they are two very different events. There is so much sadness with what has happened with those that died during Covid.”
Begum describes how the body is washed in a similar way to that of a newborn baby. The hair is shampooed, the nails are cleaned and the body is fully cleansed before being wrapped in a shroud: five pieces of white cotton cloth for a woman and three for a man.
“It is a way of the family putting them to rest and it gives them those last moments with them, but coronavirus denied many families this. They never got to say goodbye properly,” she said.
An analysis by the Office for National Statistics of coronavirus-related deaths across England and Wales by ethnicity has shown people from a black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) background are at a greater risk of their death involving the virus.
Meanwhile, a report published by Public Health England last month found that people of Bangladeshi heritage are dying at twice the rate of their white counterparts. Other BAME groups had between 10% and 50% higher risk of death.
Begum, who is of Bangladeshi heritage, says the inability to carry out the correct burial rituals due to Covid-19 eventually resulted in community elders beginning to take the pandemic seriously.
“There was a definite delay with people in this community realising the severity of what was going on but once word started to get round that the janazah wasn’t being carried out properly, the elders started to panic and really began to understand what was happening. It was a definite wake-up call for many,” she said.
In Bangladeshi communities, inequality within clinical commissioning – where the health needs of smaller population groups have consistently and historically not been met – has been cited as a factor in the higher death toll. Other contributing factors include the high number of BAME key workers, language barriers and the fact many members of these communities live in multigenerational households.
Begum, whose mother-in-law recently died of coronavirus, added: “There will be lasting trauma. People have talked to me about having anxiety attacks because their relatives weren’t buried properly – there is so much guilt associated with it.
“Even though [there is] absolutely nothing they could have done, this disease has made people feel totally helpless and that will have a lasting effect.”