The third wave of coronavirus has been unforgiving. There has been an explosion in infections and deaths since mid-June.
In the 54 days from June 19 — when fatalities rose to double digits — to last Thursday, deaths had risen from 2 325 to 3 991.
During the period, infections also markedly jumped from 76 329 to 117 957, creating an unexpected challenge.
The spike in Covid-19-related deaths created confusion in some funeral parlours as bodies were being mixed up.
Ordinarily, one or two family members of the deceased usually help mortuary attendants identify their relative before collecting the body for burial.
But, because of health protocols on handling remains of those who would have succumbed to coronavirus, including inherent fear of the virus, this is no longer the case.
Only a few people are prepared to take the risk of identifying their deceased relatives.
In some cases, those who would have mustered the courage to do so are being denied by funeral parlours under the pretext of trying to prevent infections.
According to World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines, bodies of those who die as a result of infectious diseases such as Covid-19, typhoid and cholera can neither be washed nor dressed.
The bodies are disinfected and wrapped to prevent the contagious disease from spreading.
However, the problem is compounded by the fact that some funeral parlours (names withheld) were using a single hearse to collect bodies at hospital mortuaries at once, which is against the law.
This ends up creating confusion.
As services are stretched, private vehicles are being enlisted for removals in some instances.
The Sunday Mail Society witnessed bodies being piled into a single vehicle at a local private hospital.
“We have three bodies in the hearse and the one we are collecting now will be the fourth one,” said one funeral parlour attendant to a shocked nurse at the hospital.
“We know we should collect one body at a time, but we are under pressure, so bear with us . . . Can you help by ensuring the family does not notice what is happening here?”
And this also makes it possible for bodies to be swapped.
A Mount Darwin-based family recently unknowingly ferried a wrong body from a Harare parlour.
Just before burial, they were phoned by the funeral services company informing them about the mix-up.
They had to return the body.
“It was a coronavirus-related death, so they would not allow us to identify our relative. The body was wrapped up and because we had to follow Covid-19 regulations, we never bothered to open it up.
“Just as we were about to inter the body, we got a call from the parlour telling us that we had collected a wrong body and we had to return it to Harare,” narrated one of the visibly shaken relatives who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A Bulawayo family had a similar misfortune after it transported a wrong body for burial from Harare.
The blunder was only exposed after some mourners insisted on body viewing.
“We had to call the parlour alerting them of their mistake, so we returned the body to Harare,” revealed one of the relatives . . .
“We could have buried a wrong body and imagine the consequences to the family?”
While these families have been brave enough to come forward, some are reportedly suffering in silence or have in fact proceeded to bury the remains of strangers.
At funerals, police usually monitor compliance.
“ . . . our team only ensures that mourners do not exceed the required numbers. However, what they do at the funeral is private and ceases to be our business,” said police spokesperson Assistant Commissioner Paul Nyathi.
But, how can these mishaps be avoided?
Nyaradzo head of strategy and corporate affairs Batsi Simango said the company prioritised due diligence despite an abnormally high demand for its services.
“In some cases, the number of burial services have tripled, but we only release the deceased after positive identification by two close relatives,” insisted Simango.
In the interest of public health, he said, families needed to adhere to guidelines issued by WHO and the Ministry Health and Child Care.
“The guidelines discourage unnecessary opening of the casket or contact with the deceased either for body-viewing or any other reason. Thus, after identification at the parlour, the body should go straight for burial without being tampered with,” he said.
Innocent Tshuma, Doves Holdings group public relations manager, urged parlours to be meticulous.
“It must be noted that at this point, positive identification can only come from family members, then the parlour works on instructions from the family,” he said.
“From the hospital mortuary, the body will either be taken straight to the place of burial or to the funeral parlour. In cases where one passes away in a hospital, the family should identify the deceased body before the parlour takes over.”
Part of the process at the parlour allows up to five family members to identify and inspect the work done on the body.
However, Tshuma says in the recent past, some family members had become reluctant to identify the deceased bodies for fear of contracting Covid-19.
As funeral parlours battle to meet rising demand for their services, they have been forced to work extra hours.
“A week ago we collected two bodies from a local parlour: The first one was released at 9pm, while the other one came around midnight,” said a Harare resident who recently lost two family members to Covid-19.
There are instances where burials are even being conducted in the evening, which is taboo.
Chief Makoni — born Donald Kamba — reckons desperate times call for desperate measures.
“Let us adhere to Covid-19 regulations, even if it clashes with tradition. It is up to us as traditional leaders to ensure our community members follow the Government’s directives that are meant to keep them safe . . . We are in a fix, but let us do what is right to win the war against the pandemic,” he said.
Traditionalist Mbuya Calista Magorimbo believes that preserving life takes precedence.
“Body-viewing is part of crucial burial rites, according to African tradition, but we are in a bad situation and we have to adjust accordingly. Whatever repercussions come, we will cross the bridge when we get there.”