British South Asians suffer heavy toll as coronavirus surges

Ethnic minority communities in the UK, hard-hit by the pandemic, have been forced to adapt how they say farewell.

Razwan Faraz consoles his mother Parveen as they stand beside the funeral hearse carrying his father's coffin [Abdu Pilgrim/Al Jazeera]
Razwan Faraz consoles his mother Parveen as they stand beside the funeral hearse carrying his father's coffin [Abdu Pilgrim/Al Jazeera]

Bradford, United Kingdom – In 2013, Jusna Begum performed ghusl, for the first time.

Her sister Halima had died from cancer at 40, and in accordance with Muslim principles, she washed her sibling’s body one last time, with water, before laying her to rest.

As the United Kingdom struggles to contain another devastating wave of the coronavirus, Begum, 46, along with a team of volunteers, has been working across East London to ensure the last rites of a mostly South Asian Muslim community are observed.

The first national lockdown implemented last March saw mosques across the country close, leaving funeral directors and volunteers initially uncertain over whether they could safely practise traditional burying rites.

“We weren’t able to perform ghusl initially,” Begum said. “It meant many of the dead were buried in body bags, in the clothes that they came in.”

The restrictions have since relaxed, allowing volunteers to bathe the dead while respecting social distancing restrictions and wearing full PPE – bodysuits, hoods, masks and gloves.

Meanwhile, the death rate has been unrelenting.

“There’s been a drastic change from the first wave. Now the dead are getting younger and younger,” said Begum, recalling a recent case – a mother in her 30s of Bangladeshi descent who had died from coronavirus whose three children face being put into care, while her husband fights for his life.

Rituals upended

There is little fanfare with Muslim funerals.

Loved ones wash the dead and clean their hair with water – a final earthly act of affection.

The deceased are shrouded in a white kaffan, a sheet made of cotton. It is a symbol – in death, there is no difference between the rich and the poor.

Then, community prayers are offered at a mosque for the janazah, or funeral.

Begum, who also heads a domestic violence charity, East End Project, helped bathe the Muslim victims of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017.

But the catastrophes of the pandemic are unlike anything she has seen before.

In South Asian culture, elders usually guide the young on how to carry out these traditions, but many have been forced to shield, leaving it to younger volunteers like Begum to take the helm.

Gold wedding bangles that adorn the wrists of elderly South Asian women, gifted to them as brides, normally become treasured keepsakes after death. But for some, the sudden death of the virus has meant these sentimental objects are now saddled with premature grief.

“Recently, I told a family to take their mother’s bangles off; she had COVID-19 and she was dying,” said Begum. “But her daughter didn’t have the courage to [do it]. [To her] it was like saying goodbye while she was still alive.”

Surrounded by virus victims for almost a year, Begum has not been infected, but her family has suffered immensely.

On October 15, her elder sister Monwara, 56, who already had cancer, died from COVID-19. On December 18, her brother Abdul Kodor, 60, also died from coronavirus after an outbreak at the family home which left their mother hospitalised.

Working round the clock has not allowed Begum to properly grieve.

“But it’s [taken] a toll on my mum,” she said.

London-based Jusna Begum has been helping families to bathe Muslim coronavirus victims in the pandemic [Rehan Jamil/Al Jazeera]

Funeral services overwhelmed

In the UK, more than 135,000 people have passed away with COVID-19 on their death certificates since the start of the pandemic.

Britain’s ethnic minorities, particularly those of Bangladeshi, Black Caribbean or Pakistani origin, have been disproportionately affected in terms of exposure to the virus – with some communities witnessing far higher rates of hospitalisation and deaths.

In August last year, Public Health England found that in the first wave, people of Bangladeshi descent were twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than white Britons, while people of Indian and Pakistani origin were between 10 and 50 percent more likely to die.

According to a February report by the Office for National Statistics, “There was a reduction of COVID-19 mortality during the second wave of the pandemic in most of the ethnic groups, while the higher rates continued in men and women from Bangladeshi and Pakistani background.”

At the Muslim Funeral Service, a funeral parlour in Bradford, a northern city with a large Pakistani population, calls come in as early as 1am bearing news of another body.

“Overwhelmed would be an understatement,” said Sajid Munir, who works for the family business. “On average, we were doing 16-hour shifts. We start at 7:30 in the morning and we do not come out of the office until 10:30 in the evening.”

Munir’s uncle Haji Gul Rashid, the company’s co-founder who oversaw thousands of funerals in Bradford for more than 27 years, died on April 10 last year aged 68, in the middle of the first lockdown.

“For him to have 10 people at his funeral, that was heart-wrenching,” said Munir.

Razwan Faraz, left, pictured with his father Gul Faraz who died of COVID-19 at 67 [Courtesy of Razwan Faraz]

Isolated in grief

In the middle of December, Razwan Faraz’s father, 67-year-old Gul Faraz, a much-loved taxi driver from the English midlands city of Birmingham, developed mild cold symptoms.

Faraz, who has Pakistani ancestry, called an ambulance for Gul when he began having trouble breathing.

“[My parents] were self-isolating. The only place they went to was the supermarket,” he said. “My father was very active, very healthy. I hardly ever saw him eat processed [or] fried foods.”

But Gul was immediately hospitalised at Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Two days later, his breathing deteriorated and he was placed on a ventilator.

“He was [still] conscious,” said Faraz. “He rang my mum and he said, ‘It’s going to be OK. Don’t worry.’”

Towards the end of the year, Gul fell into a coma when Faraz was himself was just recovering from coronavirus.

Gul died on January 16.

Days later, Faraz was looking through his late father’s belongings when he stumbled across 11 pairs of the same slippers and an excessive amount of hair dye.

Weeks earlier, his mother, Parveen Akhter Faraz, had asked Gul to buy a pair of the style of slippers she was comfortable with, afraid would be discontinued, and to replenish her dwindling supply of hair dye.

“He had purchased a whole year’s [supply] of hair dye for my mum,” said Faraz. “He was besotted with her right until the end.”

Under lockdown rules, a limited number of people are allowed to attend funerals [Abdu Pilgrim/Al Jazeera]

Strict social distancing restrictions have altered Muslim funerals, a traditionally communal event often attended by hundreds of people.

From handshakes to tight embraces, the pandemic has taken away the little solace physical touch can give those who are grieving.

After the doctors told Faraz’s family Gul was passing away, Parveen refused to hug her children.

“She was so paranoid, she didn’t want to give anyone COVID-19,” said Faraz.

But Faraz is relieved that unlike many, he, his three brothers and his uncle were able to wash Gul’s body – a “life-changing” process, he says.

“My brothers and I really got to feel through our grief just as brothers,” he said.

“But not being able to share that grief with cousins’ aunts and uncles, people that we are close to. I found that genuinely difficult.”

Gul’s loved ones carry his body at the funeral [Abdu Pilgrim/Al Jazeera]
Source: Al Jazeera

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