The unidentified victims who perished when Hurricane Dorian slammed Abaco in early September will receive a “dignified, Christian burial” on the island early next year, Minister of Health Dr. Duane Sands confirmed on Tuesday.
“This is a cross-cutting issue and certainly the position of the government of The Bahamas is that every human being is entitled to a dignified management of their mortal remains. And the assumption is that all of these victims would appreciate a Christian burial,” Sands told The Nassau Guardian.
“Now, that assumption, you and I can quibble over whether or not that’s a reasonable assumption, but I think in The Bahamas, and given the fact that a number of those unidentified individuals may indeed be of Haitian extraction – the most common religion in Haiti would be Catholicism.
“So, you know, to err on the side of Christian burial I think is a reasonable approach for the state to take and that is the approach that we’re going to take.”
Earlier this month Sands said there were about 50 unidentified bodies in a trailer on Abaco and the government was looking into the use of a third party to act as an intermediary in cases where some people, without legal immigration status, may be afraid to come forward to identify loved ones.
Noting that there still have not been any additional identifications since that time, Sands said Cabinet has approved a partnership with the International Committee of the Red Cross to function “as a safe intermediary such that an individual can go in, give information, give data which is not discoverable by the authorities and that should hopefully allow us to get closure on some of these remains – it certainly won’t be with all”.
“We have agreed that we will ask the International Committee of the Red Cross to act as an intermediary in terms of providing a safe space for concerned persons who may have loved ones who may have passed, but they are afraid to self-identify,” Sands stated.
“Let’s be very, very honest that people are possibly concerned that if they come to the authorities and they are undocumented migrants that they could be unwittingly or unwillingly revealing themselves as being in the country illegally, right?”
He added, “We’ve already met with [the International Committee of the Red Cross]. We’ve had multidisciplinary, multi-ministerial discussions with them and the Cabinet has approved this approach, and we will formally accept their offer to provide that service.
“You know, we don’t know if anybody would come forward. But what it does is provides a safe space if somebody would reluctantly come forward, at least we could say that that obstacle was removed.”
He also confirmed that burials will be performed in the meantime, saying: “And then, even as we walk down that road, we will solidify our plans for interment in a dignified way – burial – in a grid, such that we can locate the remains if somebody is able to be identified.
“So if Duane is buried in A13 in the grid, and family members have come forward, put forth DNA, we know without a shadow of a doubt that these are his remains; they can then be turned over to the family if they choose, for either burial in the place or in the method that they choose or at least they’ll be able to know that ‘my loved one is interred here’ and they get some closure.”
The government has allocated nearly $300,000 for the burial of unclaimed victims of Hurricane Dorian, according to the “Post-Dorian: health sector strategic response plan of action” report by the Ministry of Health.
The report categorized the burials as short, medium and long-term actions, noting that it will cost $275,000 and the money will come from the Consolidated Fund.
It also noted that the “cost assumes approximately 50 unclaimed victims at a burial cost of $5,500 each”.
“You know, I listen to the comments that people make about ‘oh you know it’s been three and half months and blah blah blah, this hasn’t been done and that hasn’t been done’ – well, we have never, ever as a country seen anything like Hurricane Dorian. Ever. And for anybody to suggest that we have, they’re being disingenuous,” Sands said.
He added, “Let’s be very clear; even though all ministries are open again on the 27th, right, then you go into a weekend, then you go back into New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and…you know.
“So realistically, it’s going to be the beginning of January before implementation of many of these things. But we have been moving methodically and deliberately to get to this point.”