Volunteer body collectors help lay HCMC Covid victims to rest

By Hoang Ha   October 2, 2021 | 10:15 pm PT
Trung Van Thinh and a colleague received their first request to pick up the body of a dead Covid victim in District 7 at 9 a.m. on August 28.

Burial is not Thinh’s profession. The 30-year-old from District 7 used to work as a freelancer but stopped when the epidemic broke out.

Unable to bear to sit still while the city was "severely ill," he asked to join Tran Long Volunteer Group that has been active since 2014 in the same district.

The leader of the unit is Thai Ha, a 32-year-old lecturer at Ho Chi Minh City University of Technology. In June, Ha received a call from the group leader Tran Long and agreed without hesitation.

"Our group has nearly 100 members, of which the burial team includes about 20. Most are new comers who recently joined during the pandemic fight," Long, 41, said.

Truong Van Thinh (L) and members of the volunteer group carry the body of an old woman who died of Covid-19 at Le Lai Street in HCMCs District 1. Photo courtesy of Thinh

Truong Van Thinh (L) and members of the volunteer group transport the body of an old woman who died of Covid-19onLe Lai Street in HCMC's District 1. Photo courtesy of Thinh

Both Ha and Thinh started out with driving ambulances and providing oxygen tanks for Covid patients. In August, when the number of deaths from Covid-19 rapidly increased and the city's funeral service facilities were packed, they were transferred to a group specializing in post-mortems.

She admitted that at first she was quite worried because she often had to come in close contact with the dead bodies of Covid patients, and even once tried to change to a different task group.

"But think, if I stay at home, who would do these things, so I will do it again," Ha said.

"My group members are office workers, teachers, bankers and even company directors. If we see people in difficulty, we will help."

Her daily job is to receive information from citizens and request support from the Department of Health or district Military Commands. When required, she assigns vehicles and tasks to each team. When the ambulances set off, Ha stays back to process death certificates, register a schedule at the crematorium or deliver ashes relatives.

"During peak days, our group has to be divided into three teams to support more than 30 cases a day," she said.

Since becoming captain, Ha often has restless nights due to witnessing many heartbroken circumstances.

"There are children who are only 1-2 years old that have lost both their father and mother."

As for Truong Van Thinh, he has been driving ambulances from 9 a.m. until midnight every day.

According to the guidance of the Ministry of Health, the body of a person infected with Covid-19 must be processed as soon as possible, while the body of the deceased must be cremated or buried within 24 hours of death. Therefore, the teams that do this work always have to be on call and ready to work, regardless of day or night, rain or shine.

After more than a month of doing this, the most striking cases for Thinh is a pregnant woman who lost her husband in District 7 on Aug. 28.

"That day, when I arrived, I saw a young pregnant woman in a daze while her deceased husband lay in a hammock," he recalled.

He helped the woman sit down, and then joined his team members to process the deceased. When the husband's body was taken to be cremated, the wife stood staring blankly into the distance.

Kim Kien, 30 of Binh Chanh District, said his mother died at the hospital on Aug. 7. He messaged Ha and Thinh's group for support and received a response within the night.

"I was heartbroken at the time. Everyone in the group had to comfort and encourage me. During the pandemic, without such volunteer groups, I wouldn't know what to do," he said.

Thai Nguyen Hue Luan, an employee of the District 4 health station, said that since the beginning of the epidemic season, Long's team had greatly supported the unit.

"When they need an ambulance to take Covid patients to hospital, or take care of Covid victims, they are always present and don't mind difficulties," Luan said.

Quang Truong rests between shifts on August 18, 2021. Photo courtesy of Truong

Quang Truong rests between shifts on August 18, 2021. Photo courtesy of Truong

Quang Truong, 23, a banker in Tan Phu District, also came to this job by accident.

In July, his company let some employees like him work from home. But he wanted to volunteer and so opened his laptop to register to join the city’s Covid fight. On Aug. 18, he was accepted into a volunteer team in District 10, driving an ambulance and assisting the funeral team.

"I did things I never thought I would do before," Truong said.

Initially, he did not tell his family about caring for deceased Covid victims, only saying he assisted with transporting Covid patients.

But when his parents learned about it, they "did not object and just told me to be careful."

He said that at first he only stood outside to support disinfection, putting up barricades and placing bodies in bags. Now he can do things like dressing the deceased or moving them to the crematorium.

"We want to see them off to the end of the road in the most neat, thorough and tidy way possible," Truong said.

Members of the Tran Long burial team sit down to rest after carrying out a Covid victim body at Pham The Hien Street, HCMCs District 8, on August 27, 2021. Photo courtesy of Long

Members of the Tran Long burial team sit down to rest after collecting a Covid victim on Pham The Hien Street, HCMC's District 8, on August 27, 2021. Photo courtesy of Long

After the peak outbreak, the epidemic situation in Ho Chi Minh City is beginning to calm down and the trips that Thinh, Ha or Truong make have gradually become less frequent.

With the coronavirus situation in city showing signs of being put under control, and a strategic shift being made to live safely with the virus instead of eliminating it completely, HCMC has prepared plans to revert hospitals and other institutions to their original functions while retaining their capabilities to respond to the disease.

HCMC, epicenter of the fourth coronavirus wave, has recorded 392,329 local Covid-19 cases so far in the new wave. A total 14,814 people in the city have died.

Some team members have returned to their families after many months. Some are starting to return to their daily routine. But there are also people who continue to stay and support the needy and patients.

"Our team has supported the burial of about 300 people. Currently, the group continues to help families whose loved ones have passed away but cannot afford to pay for their own burial," Long said.

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