Baghdad: For Saad Malik, losing his father to the novel coronavirus was only the beginning of his nightmare. For over a week, cemeteries across Iraq refused to allow the elderly man's burial.
Fearing the respiratory illness could somehow spread from the corpses to nearby population centres, Iraqi religious authorities, tribes and townspeople have sent the bodies of COVID-19 victims back to hospital morgues, where they are piling up.
"We couldn't hold a funeral for him and haven't been able to bury his body, even though it's been more than a week since he died," Malik told AFP, his voice laced with bitterness. Armed men claiming to be tribal leaders threatened Malik, his family and his friends, saying they would set fire to his car if they tried to bury the body in their area.
"Can you imagine that across this huge country Iraq, there aren't a few square metres to bury a small number of bodies?" In Islam, a person must be buried as soon as possible after death, usually within 24 hours.
Cremation is strictly prohibited. Iraq has confirmed more than 500 COVID-19 cases and 42 deaths from the respiratory disease, but the real numbers are likely much higher as few of the country's 40 million people have been tested.
Authorities have declared a countrywide lockdown until April 11, urging citizens to stay at home and adopt rigorous hygiene routines to forestall the spread of the virus. But in some areas, local powers are getting even stricter.
Northeast of the capital Baghdad this week, tribal figures prevented a team of health ministry officials from burying four bodies in a cemetery the state had specifically designated for COVID-19 victims.
When the delegation tried to take the bodies to another burial ground southeast of Baghdad, dozens of local townspeople turned out in protest. Ultimately, the bodies were returned to the morgue. One Iraqi living near Baghdad told AFP "we decided to block any burials in our area."
"We panicked over (the health of) our children and families." According to the World Health Organization (WHO), which is leading the global response to the pandemic, coronavirus is transmitted through droplets and surface contact.