Applause for the invisible frontliners

Chaminda Janaka

Cemetery Worker

“I played my part during the lockdown although my contributions might not have made the headlines,” says Chaminda Janaka (48), a cemetery worker caught at the epicentre of the pandemic. “Not everyone knows our side of the story and that does not matter to me. I feel satisfied knowing I have supported the efforts that were taken.” This crisis hit him particularly hard when he saw the escalating global death toll. He knew what was at stake. “It felt like it was a matter of time before our country would face the same. We had to mentally prepare ourselves for what was to come if the virus spreads nationwide” he says. “We are scared but we can’t let it get the better of us.”

Chaminda had to cycle around ten kilometres to reach the Borella Kanatte Cemetery. He worked longer shifts and through the night due to the shortage of staff, respectfully maintaining the grounds, tending to memorial sites and preparing graves so families can say their final goodbyes to loved ones. “We see the emotional turmoil families go through. It was difficult this time around as there are a limited number of people allowed to attend. You could see their pain not being able to be comforted by family and friends,” he says.

“We had more protocols and guidelines to follow during this time. We had to act fast and process the final rights swiftly as the virus is highly contagious.” He had to shoulder this responsibility at a time when people were encouraged to stay at home and practice social distance. He says, “Our work revolves closer to the dead than the living, and there is a greater risk working at this time. Working with PPE was extremely difficult due to the heat. However, we had to get the work done; digging graves and sealing them. This is not the type of work everyone is capable of doing.”

Frontline responders, like Chaminda, were not passive emotional bystanders during this disaster. Being in this line of work means he cannot let emotions cloud his actions.“This does not mean we don’t care,” he mentions, “I care and that is why I’m prepared to do the right thing by everybody who comes here, regardless of how they died, by contracting the virus or not.”