ILIGAN CITY —– In 2017, they risked their lives dodging bullets to save those trapped inside the city by the siege.
These days they brave an unseen enemy to provide a decent burial for the dead and spare the rest of the population from infection.
They are employees of Lanao del Sur Provincial Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office (PDRRMO).
On March 17, they conducted their first burial of a COVID-19 patient who died on that same day in Amai Pakpak Medical Center in Marawi City.
Amer Hussein Lucman, head of Lanao del Sur PDRRMO, said they had mixed emotions when they were told to bury the dead at Maqbarra Public Provincial Cemetery in Barangay Papandayan, Caniogan.
Maqbarra is the same cemetery where over 200 unidentified fatalities recovered from the Ground Zero battleground during the Marawi siege in 2017 are interred.
Lucman’s group was the same group, better known as the Suicide Squad, who retrieved the remains while the battle between government troops and the insurgents raged around them.
“We experienced mixed emotions because at first, we were told that the PDRRMO is there only to support, and that they (Marawi City Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Office) is supposed to lead but the APMC told us no one wanted to handle the deceased. We are ready anytime because we, in the PDRRMO, are here to help,” Lucman said.
Two immediate family members, with the help of two hospital personnel, helped carry the remains of the COVID-19 fatality from the hospital isolation room to the vehicle waiting at the back of the hospital.
“Noong malapit na sa vehicle, doon na kami nag take over, hinawakan na ng mga tao ko ang remains. We tried our very best to carry it kasi alam mo naman ang belief namin sa Islam, dinahan dahan namin ang pag-carry,” Lucman said.
(When the cadaver was near the vehicle, we took over, my colleagues held the remains. We tried our best to handle it carefully because you know our belief in Islam, we carry the deceased with care and respect.)
All team members were wearing protective suits which were all later properly disposed off according to the protocol mandated by the Department of Health (DOH).
Lucman said it was his first time to assist in an Islamic burial so unlike the previous ones he attended.
While he and his colleagues tried to make the burial solemn given the unusual circumstances, they just smiled and tried to make light of it afterwards while disposing of their hazmat suits.
In reality, they all were scared of getting infected. This battle was different.
“Noong nagdadamit na kami, siyempre virus yan, mas delikado kumpara sa siege, idinadaan nalang namin sa tawa, nagbibiro na lang kami ng mga kasama naming na parang ‘eto, tayo na naman ang nagtatrabaho, walang tutulong’. Hindi na naming masyadong pinu-problema para hindi mawalan ng lakas ng loob ang mga members namin,” Lucman said.
(When we were wearing our hazmat suits, of course we are dealing with a virus, more dangerous than the siege, we just laughed, we joked with our colleagues and I said “here we are again, working, no one will help”. We did not take it seriously so that our team members would not get discouraged).
“Sa siege kasi, maririnig mo ang putok ng baril, puwede kang magtago muna bago dumiretso. Unlike nito, hindi mo nakikita ang kalaban mo. Puwedeng anytime dumapo sa iyo kahit naka-protective suit ka, hindi 100% na hindi kakapit sa iyo,” he added.
(During the siege, you could hear the gunfire and explosions, you could take cover before proceeding. Unlike now, you cannot see your enemies. Anytime, you could get infected even if you wearing a protective suit because it is not 100% you won’t get infected.)
To make sure they are safe when they get back to their office, they disinfect three times. The vehicle used in transporting the cadaver was also disinfected. Then they underwent quarantine until they were again called to bury another COVID patient on March 20.
At the cemetery, no Islamic rites were conducted since the immediate family members already did these at the isolation room. They had to be very quick.
“Sa normal na libing namin, lahat nga pamilya na nasa paligid ay hahawak sa bangkay bago ilagay sa hukay, pasa-pasa yan. Maraming mag-volunteer na maglibing. Hindi ka natatakot. Pero ito, kahit immediate family ay nag-aalangan na humawak sa bangkay. Masakit isipin na ganoon ang naging impact ng sakit na ito.”
“Alanganin kaming humawak kasi baka mapunit ang PPEs namin,” Lucman added.
For the March 28 burial, the PDRRMO decided not to bring along the immediate family members of the deceased because the nearest relatives were living in Iligan City.
The Inter-Agency Task Force COVID-19 in Iligan City did not allow the relatives to go out from their house because they were classified as Persons Under Monitoring (PUM).
“On our end also, pinagbawal na namin na may family member na sumama kasi walang problema sa amin, we can always go on a quarantine. Pero mga family members, hindi natin alam kung may disiplina sa pag-quarantine. So imbes na mababawasan ang problema, baka mas lalong lumaki,” Lucman said.
(On our end, we prohibit family members from joining the burial. It’s no problem for us because we can always go on quarantine. For the family members of the deceased, we are not sure if they have the discipline to undertake the mandated quarantine. Instead of easing the problem, it may only worsen the situation.)
“We understand the weight of the problem. We are not sure of the other people because there many who are still in denial once they got infected with the virus,” he added.
It was hard for Lucman’s group to prohibit family members from burying their loved one, but the group prefers it that way rather than risk further spreading the virus.