SA turns to temporary morgues as COVID-19 deaths soar


South Africa is the continent’s worst-hit country in the pandemic, with more than 1.4 million coronavirus cases and 40,800 deaths and with this comes the burden of mortuaries running out of space as bodies continue to pile up.

To help store the influx of bodies – and ensure COVID-19 victims are separated from others – AVBOB (Africa’s Largest Mutual Assistance Society Providing Funeral & Burial Services) has distributed 22 containers normally used for transporting goods to its 250 South African morgues.

“We have seen an increase of around 40 percent (in corpses) across the country,” said spokesman Marius du Plessis of AVBOB.

The country was already struggling to beat back infections when they surged to unprecedented levels this month after scientists detected a new virus variant widely believed to be more contagious.

Coffin makers are also feeling the strain.

“I can’t take any more orders,” repeats the secretary of Johannesburg manufacturer Enzo Wood every time she answers the phone.

More than 100 workers have been labouring non-stop since the early morning, spraying sawdust across the factory floor.

The noise is deafening as machines turn relentlessly for eight hours a day, churning out dozens of wooden planks.

It then takes only 20 minutes to assemble a coffin.

Enzo Wood is now working at maximum capacity, producing 300 coffins per day. Orders fly off the warehouse shelves, making it impossible to build up stock.

At a funeral home in the administrative capital Pretoria, an undertaker ties a third layer of plastic around a corpse sent that morning from a coronavirus hospital ward.

Only the feet, arms and head can be distinguished of the tightly wrapped bundle lying on a stainless steel table, surrounded by white-tiled walls.

The body must be buried soon.

“Covid bodies can be kept for seven days maximum,” facility manager Naomi Van der Heever said.

The surrounding refrigerated rooms are almost full, with 200 bodies waiting to be buried or cremated. More than half succumbed to the virus.

“They have to go quick, it’s protocol,” said Van der Heever.

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Amuna Misso
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