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Malaysian volunteer undertakers struggle to cope as COVID cases surge

KUALA LUMPUR  Malaysian volunteers, who help to give virus victims a Muslim burial, say they are being stretched like never before, as the Southeast Asian country struggles to cope with its worst coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak since the start of the pandemic. 

Dressed in full protective gear, the Malaysian Funeral Management Squad is usually called in by hospitals to help families to pay their last respects in a safe way. 

Muhammad Rafieudin Zainal Rasid, a religious leader who heads the nationwide volunteer team, has become known as the cleric undertaker. He said the volunteers were currently handling nearly 30 times more bodies than they did last year. 

The volunteer team has grown in size to more than 2,000 members, but Muhammad Rafieudin said they are struggling to keep up. 

Before this, it was about one to three cases per month, but now we are managing up to two to three cases a day, he said, referring to just one team in the district of Kuala Lumpur where he is based. 

The volunteers go from the hospital to the morgue to prepare the bodies for burial and also perform Muslim prayers at the cemetery, sometimes joined by family members who are also given full protective gear. 

But as the number of deaths from the virus increases in the Muslim-majority country, it is sometimes hard to bury the body within 24 hours as is typical under Islam. 

If there are more than 10 cases today at the same cemetery, it might take two to three (days) to wrap everything up, he said. 

Malaysia on Thursday reported 7,857 new coronavirus cases, the third straight day of record infections and 59 deaths. 

While its overall caseload is far lower than some neighbors, its ratio of infections to population, at more than 16,000 per million, is Southeast Asias highest, public data shows. 

We are worried that the risk will be more dangerous for all of us who are exposed since we are handling the bodies, said Muhammad Rafieudin.  Ebrahim Harris/Reuters 

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