The rules vs. humanity

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The rules vs. humanity

Choi Jae-wook
The author is a professor of preventive medicine at Korea University.

A family was notified of the death of their mother who battled Covid-19 in an isolated residential hospital in December. They were unable to stay to her side in her last moment or hold a funeral. They only received ashes from n unattended cremation. The family raged at the government for forcing them to abandon their mother in her lonely last moments.

They is not an exceptional case. The families of 5,887 people who died from Covid-19 over the last two years experienced the same agony. Most of the victims had to close their eyes without having the opportunity to hold the hands of their loved ones and share their last words. Families who had to wait outside and pray for a miracle were merely notified of the deaths.

They were never given the chance to see the faces of their loved ones before they were cremated. Funerals of the Covid-19 victims were only possible after they were burnt to ashes. The quarantine manual for Covid-19 deaths had no minimum respect for lives and human dignity.

The World Health Organization in March 2020 said cremation is a matter of cultural choice and available resources because to date, there is no evidence of persons having become infected from exposure to the bodies of persons who died from Covid-19. The United States and most other countries take up the WHO guideline and allows decedents with Covid-19 can be buried or cremated. Still, the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) required the decedents with Covid-19 to be cremated before funeral since the outbreak, and this was mandated in a written guideline from February last year. 

A daughter and her mother staying at a medical facility in Gwangju meet face to face last year, with a glass shield separating them to help block the coronavirus from spreading. [YONHAP] 

People hospitalized with Covid-19 have endured indignity as well. The 650,000 who had been found positive were deprived of any meeting with their guardians and were entirely isolated during treatment. Prevention and control measures are essential in containing infectious disease for the broader public health and crisis management. And yet, the quarantine measures should be based on scientific grounds. The rights of patients and the self-determination of families must be respected.

But Covid-19 patients were alone in their fight with the disease as visits by families were utterly banned. Families were alerted and allowed to visit only when the patient’s condition deteriorate to a critical state. They were able to see their sick loved ones through a glass window or allowed near the deathbed clad in protection suits.

Patients in their last moment mostly are unconscious and rely on machines to sustain the last breath. They can hardly exchange farewell sunder such state. It is only a ceremonious arrangement. Even considering the risk to infection and hospital regulation, the cruel isolation, denial of visits, and unscientific funeral guidelines seriously infringe on human rights and human dignity.

Residential hospitals and nursing homes that stopped accepting visitors from March last year have allowed family visits in exceptional cases, such as when the patient is near death, falling into unconsciousness, in a critical state or if the doctor deems the move necessary for the well-being of the patient. From June last year, visits were possible if the patient or visitor were fully vaccinated. Hospitalized Covid-19 patients also should be allowed minimum visits from families.

The government’s “undiscriminating” quarantine approach should also apply to Covid-19 patients, decedents and their families.

Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
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