Covid: Side-by-side in a London mosque - funerals and a food bank

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media captionSome of the volunteers are working to prepare bodies for burial

A mosque in east London has closed for all communal prayer. Instead it is serving two purposes - providing funerals and feeding the local community. Michael Buchanan finds a team of volunteers there battling to deal with the pandemic.

The family shuffled quietly past a crate of milk cartons. They came through the small porch, towards the open coffin. Inside was a woman - a loved one - who died of Covid two days ago. The coffin sat feet away from tins and packets to be distributed by the local food bank. The milk was the latest delivery.

It is impossible to capture the enormous consequences of the pandemic. But last Saturday lunchtime, this tragic image - one of grief and hardship coming together - came close, for me at least.

Covid-19 has made extraordinary demands of so many different people, but what is currently happening at the Masjid Ibrahim and Islamic Centre in east London is truly remarkable. Situated on a busy road, with the noise of ambulance sirens regularly shattering its peaceful interior, the mosque has closed to communal prayer and is open for two other purposes - to provide a funeral service and a food bank to the local community. Both are inundated.

"We've had so many bodies coming in. It's quite shocking. It's one after another after another. We've never had that situation before," says Sofia Bhatti. Alongside her friend, Tabassum Khokhar - known as Tabs - the pair are unheralded heroes. They volunteer to wash the bodies of Covid-positive women prior to burial.

The practice, called Ghusl, is a sacred Islamic ritual and is usually performed by the deceased's relatives, who cleanse and shroud the body. But Covid restrictions mean families are currently denied that religious honour, so volunteers like Sofia and Tabs are taking on what they consider to be a privileged task.

"We actually believe that when we are shrouding here, that God is shrouding the soul at the same time," says Tabs, standing by a coffin. By day, she works as a teaching support worker in a local school, so the PPE that the mosque provides - bodysuit, footwear, two sets of gloves, masks and visors - is crucial for her. "I make sure my PPE is secure because it's not just about me, it's about my family. I have an 81-year-old mother."

The women are seeing first hand - and in graphic detail - the pressure the NHS is under. "Very often we see bodies coming in with a lot of medical equipment still attached to them," says Sofia. "Tubes and pipes and catheters still attached. So it makes our job a little bit harder." One of the women they washed during my visit had died in the ambulance, never actually reaching hospital.

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Very often we see bodies coming in with a lot of medical equipment still attached to them. Tubes and pipes and catheters
Sofia Bhatti (right) pictured with Tabassum Khokhar

There are far more bodies than during the first peak and there is a larger age range. One day this week, the mosque was handling seven bodies. A few days earlier they said they'd processed 10 funerals, all arranged for free and paid for by donations. Before the pandemic, they'd handled two to three funerals a week. The two local hospital trusts in east London have each had more than 1,000 Covid deaths since the start of the pandemic. More have died at home.

The borough of Newham, where the mosque sits, has suffered a disproportionate number of deaths. Home to the Olympic Park, the 2012 London games were meant to regenerate this area. Yet it retains high levels of poverty and overcrowded housing. Add in a diverse population, rich in south Asian culture, and large numbers of people who can't work from home and the virus has sadly ripped through its residents.

Isfand Aslam said he's shocked by what's going on. His father, Mohammad, died on 3 January, a week after falling ill. His positive Covid test result arrived two days after his death. The 85-year-old was a committee member at the Masjid Ibrahim and despite his age had been in good health. "It took a week between him passing away and getting buried. Initially I was getting a lot of condolences from friends. But by the end of that week I am giving condolences to three friends because their fathers had passed away. It's now got to the stage where everybody we know knows somebody who has passed away."

'I have no money'

The sheer number of deaths is impacting the area's main Muslim cemetery. Normally, the Gardens of Peace buries three to four people each day. They're currently carrying out an average of 15 funerals daily. Overall, they are about 50% busier than usual. They can no longer promise burials within 24 hours, as per Muslim custom.

Despite this, there is still a concerning number of people in the local area who either don't think Covid is real or are resistant to taking a vaccine. There was anger among some community leaders before Christmas when it emerged the Bangladeshi High Commission in London held a cultural evening to celebrate its independence. Photos from the event, on 16 December, showed a group - including the High Commissioner herself - standing close together with no masks or social distancing. The High Commission said performers had been Covid tested and it had issued 10 videos in Bangla urging British-Bangladeshis to adhere to UK government guidance.

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It's now got to the stage where everybody we know knows somebody who has passed away
Isfand Aslam

To counter disinformation among its members, an imam at the Masjid Ibrahim, Mohammad Ammar, filmed a short video of himself being injected with the vaccine and urged his congregation to follow suit. Imam Ammar has actually been furloughed by the mosque as it focusses all its resources on battling the pandemic, including feeding its local community.

The virus forced the mosque to open a food bank in March. It is still running 10 months on. On Monday night, I watched a steady stream of people gather in the gloom at the rear of the mosque to fill their bags. Most were collecting on behalf of a larger household, and the mosque says they're currently feeding 350 families each week, including students, refugees, people with no access to public funds and those who've lost income.

Among those collecting food on Monday was Mohammad Rahman. A 42-year-old chef, he lost his job in an Indian restaurant three months ago. The married father of two boys - aged eight and six - told me he was already in rent arrears and struggling to pay his energy bills. "My son says 'where is the pizza'? But I have no money. He says '[can I have] chicken and chips'? But I have no money. The shops are open, but no money", he adds, taking his hands from his pockets.

In normal times, the Masjid Ibrahim would attract about 1,100 worshippers over three floors for Friday prayers, and there has been some pressure on the leadership to reopen for communal worship. But Asim Uddin, chairman of the mosque, says now is not the time. "Prayers, yes, it's important. But right now what is the need? The need of the community is they want to be fed and they want a place where they can respectfully bury their loved ones. And the demand is overwhelming. Right now, it's better they stay home, and they can pray at home until the situation goes back to normal."

Read more from Michael

Michael Buchanan is the BBC's social affairs correspondent and has been reporting on the impact of the pandemic on communities in the UK. Last year, he visited the town of Pontypool to find out what impact coronavirus restrictions were having in Wales.