TWO men load into their lorry what is fast becoming a prized commodity in Harare — a coffin.
On a wintry July morning in Harare’s Mbare suburb, these men are preparing for what would be their umpteenth delivery to yet another family mourning the passing of a loved one last week.
As the third wave of the coronavirus sweeps across the country, many small-scale coffin makers are starting to buckle under the strain of rising demand.
This month, 1 081 deaths — an average of 48 deaths a day — have been attributed to Covid-19 countrywide.
Experts say deaths are expected to continue rising as they tend to lag behind infections by several weeks.
With businesses being forced to cut operating hours in line with the Level Four lockdown, coffin makers in Mbare are barely managing to meet demand amid mounting orders. Mr Tonderai Duka, who has worked as a coffin maker at the Magaba Home Industry for over a decade, said the current demand was unprecedented.
“To keep production in line with orders, we have had to take on an additional two new staff members to speed the manufacturing process,” he said.
Before the pandemic, they were assembling no more than 10 caskets daily, but after ramping up production, they are assembling at least 30 coffins daily.
Harare has been designated as one of the country’s Covid-19 hotspots. Mr Duka said his small enterprise, Sahabat Duka, was supplying funeral parlours more than 100 caskets every week. However, the shorter working day has taken its toll.
Mr Naison Mugutso, another coffin maker operating in Mbare, told The Sunday Mail that business was overwhelming and his small company was failing to meet demand.
“Stock has run out and we are unable to make more,” said Mr Mugutso, who operates from Koffman Shops near Matapi Flats.
“Most of us are unregistered. But big commercial funeral parlours get their coffins from us. For instance, I supply them with coffins for between US$80 and US$120, which they resell at their parlours for around US$400.
“Parlours come to collect coffins from us and put huge markups for their clients. Now they have nowhere to get the coffins because we are unable to work. It is so painful.”
To add to the fix, they still have to contend with orders for deaths that are not directly linked to Covid-19.
Mr Mugutso said lockdown restrictions have strained the raw material supply chain, meaning that increasing production was a challenge.
“We cannot produce in large quantities because sometimes we do not get the raw materials,” he said.
He said plywood sheets — wood veneers bonded together to produce a flat sheet used to assemble coffins — were in short supply. His workshop, he said, was missing production targets because of delays in delivery of critical raw materials.
“Recently we stopped production for four days because there were no raw materials.”
While most business owners celebrate recording brisk business, that, naturally, is not the case with Mr Mugutso.
“On the one hand, I would say I am happy because of the high demand, but on the other hand, as a human being, I am also sad.”
As deaths continue to sour, funeral homes are beginning to feel the pinch as demand for services reach unprecedented levels. So bad is the situation that some parlours are turning away clients. Rhino Funeral Services manager Mr Mike Sebanga said in one incident, he received ten calls for body removals in an hour.
“This is extreme. We have never had a kind of situation like this. Covid-19 has taken us to the extreme,” he said.
“The reality is that people are dying. You can be in the office and people call every time and you even think of switching off your phone. Around 10 people called me to pick bodies in just one hour.”
Dignity Funeral Services chief executive officer Mr Petros Manyika said the Government should consider designating coffin makers essential service providers.
“We are managing because we have our own people who do our coffins, but indeed there has been a shortage of coffins lately in the country.
“It is just consistent with global trends. Covid-19 is just killing a lot of people, it is not something peculiar to Zimbabwe only,” he said.
Consequently, the mounting number of deaths has spawned rising demand for burial services and space.
An undertaker at Warren Hills Cemetery in Harare, Mr Anderson Nyopira, said over a dozen bodies were being interred at the cemetery everyday.
“Up to 15 bodies are brought here for burial on a daily basis. Before this pandemic, around five bodies would be brought for burials,” he said.
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