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As funerals become Covid-19 super-spreader events, officials call for a break with customs

Limpopo funerals Covid-19 super spreaders
Written by Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

After largely escaping the first wave of Covid-19 infections, Limpopo has seen a rapid increase in infections. Provincial leaders say funerals are to blame, and urge mourners to avoid gathering and adjust certain customs.

Bathing and dressing up a deceased loved one, or gathering before the burial are integral parts of grieving for my cultures in South Africa. Yet, as deaths mount due to the coronavirus pandemic, officials are urging citizens to find new funeral practices to stop the spread of Covid-19.

Last year, Limpopo was among the provinces with least number of reported positive cases. Since the beginning of 2021, the province has seen a rapid rise in the number of positive Covid-19 cases reported daily. Funerals have been singled out as so-called super spreader events in the province, officials in the Covid-19 Provincial Command Council (PCC) said this week. This is despite national regulations limiting funerals to 50 people.

“The current regulation states that the number of people who can attend a funeral is only 50,” said Limpopo Premier Stanley Mathabatha. “It further states that there must be social distancing, wearing of face masks, regular washing of hands with water and soap and sanitising. However, majority of our people continue to ignore these important guidelines, thus causing harm to themselves and others.”

Rising deaths

As of Thursday, Limpopo has recorded a total number of 40,364 positive cases, with 702 deaths since the start of the pandemic. A total number of 1,717 of health care workers tested positive for the coronavirus, with 11 succumbing to the virus.

“PCC, therefore, makes a clarion call to the people of Limpopo to be careful of funerals. Please do not attend a funeral if you are not a member of the family or a close relative,” the premier said in a virtual meeting. “In the same spirit, the PCC calls upon all municipalities in the province and our law enforcement agencies, to monitor and enforce compliance at these funerals. This is because our mission as this current generation is to save lives at all costs.”

Earlier this week, President Cyril Ramaphosa reiterated the national regulations around funerals. Along with limited attendance, social distancing, hand-sanitising and mask-wearing must be adhered to at all times.

The World Health Organisation has also published regulations for the funerals of those who have succumbed to Covid-19. For example, if the family only wants to view the body, they may do so, using standard precautions always including hand hygiene. Touching or kissing the body is not recommended, because one may still be able to contract the coronavirus from a deceased relative.

Despite the rising deaths, the province’s hospitals are still coping. While public hospitals in the province still have beds available for Covid-19 patients, private hospitals are full, said Mathabatha. Some private hospitals are now transferring patients to Limpopo’s public hospitals, he added.

Undertakers at risk

Funeral parlours no  longer allow family members to dress the corpses of their relatives, regardless of the cause of death, said spokesperson for South African Funeral Practitioners Association (SAFPA) Vuyo Mabindisa. Still, there are many clients who ignore these rules.

Poster about funerals

Source: Province of Limpopo

“In light of Covid-19, we no longer allow family members to bath nor dress up their loved ones as we are trying to limit the spread of the virus at all cost,” said Mabindisa “But despite that we do come across families who gives us problems by still insisting to visit and bath corpses despite knowing what we are going through as a nation”.

Mabindisa also dismissed reports of coffin shortages.

“Though at some time we did experience a challenge when it comes to the availability of coffins, I can confidently say that we have dealt with that challenge and coffins are now being manufactured in a huge number,” he said.

Earlier this week, Health MEC Dr Phophi Ramathuba, also pleaded with the funeral practitioners to ensure their own safety. The MEC said her office held meeting with funeral undertakers during the first wave of infections, and asked them to maintain the regulations that helped the province cope. Still, with a new variant of the virus, she urged citizens to be more vigilant.

“With the first wave what we dealt with was the virus that was attacking majority of people who were old and vulnerable and people who we lost at that time would mainly be our senior citizens,” said Ramathuba. “This time around because this variant attack young people that is why you’re seeing the spread very rapid.”—Health-e News

About the author

Ndivhuwo Mukwevho

Ndivhuwo Mukwevho is citizen journalist who is based in the Vhembe District of Limpopo province. He joined OurHealth in 2015 and his interests lie in investigative journalism and reporting the untold stories of disadvantaged rural communities. Ndivhuwo holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Media Studies from the University of Venda and he is currently a registered student with UNISA.