JOHANNESBURG – “Highly contagious” warn orange labels on triple-layered bags that cover the bodies of the increasing number of people killed by COVID-19 in South Africa.
Whether or not the country’s official death toll of 7,497 is accurate or not, funeral workers are barely getting any rest.
“We are extremely busy. It’s really like a tsunami currently, swallowing us and it keeps coming and coming,” Kobus Booysen, head of South Africa’s leading funeral services company Avbob, tells EFE in Germiston, a small city near Johannesburg.
Doctors, police officers, nurses and funeral workers are essential in the work against the pandemic.
It is the saddest and least rewarding of the industries directly affected by the outbreak, which in South Africa has been relentless since March.
Undertakers support families at their most difficult time and expose themselves and their relatives to the risk of contagion.
“This type of work is not for everybody. You work with all the negative things and you have to put on a face, every day is a challenge,” Booysen says.
“For me, the worst is the frustration.”
The nation has recorded more than 471,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases, almost two-thirds of the total for Africa.
It is the fifth most-infected country in the world and infection rates are not expected to start subsiding until August.
Statistics on excess deaths in recent weeks suggest the official death toll, a rate less than half the global average, could be thousands short of the true number.
The brutal impact of coronavirus in South Africa has doubled the workload for funeral homes and changed the way employees approach their everyday work and families are allowed to mourn, whether or not their loved one was a COVID patient or not.
“It is traumatic for them (the families) because even a not COVID case, even the normal ones, it’s very impersonal,” Booysen laments.
“I mean, you can’t take the body to their house. You can’t take the loved one. There is not a normal funeral at the gravesite.”
The number of people allowed to attend a burial in South Africa has been capped at 50, including funeral workers.
Avbob was founded 102 years ago in response to another pandemic, the Spanish Flu in 1918 which killed between 50 and 100 million people around the world.
Soldiers who had fought in World War I inadvertently brought the virus to South Africa on their return from Europe.
“We had to adapt to ensure that everyone is kept safe, but it wasn’t something completely new or a completely new environment,” Marius du Plessis, Avbob’s communications officer, tells EFE.
Protective suits, masks and visors are prepared as soon as a call comes in.
The body must be removed, prepared for safe transportation, legal documentation finalized and the funeral arranged within three days.
Remains must be sealed in three plastic bags, the first two are transparent to allow identification of the deceased by only opening the third.
Measures to contain infections are often hard for bereaved families as the tradition in the country is to hold large, lavish gatherings.
It falls to undertakers to explain that mourning death in 2020 is no longer a social act that brings together hundreds of people to honor lost loved ones.
“In South Africa, we have a hugely diverse population, with various customs and cultural norms and religious beliefs and so on,” Du Plessis said.
“It differs quite widely from family to family.
“From that perspective, our staff has to be very, very sensitive because for a family it is an extremely emotional and difficult time as it is.”
As in the rest of the world, final goodbyes have to be hurried with no physical contact and a limited number of mourners.