A quick prayer, no more: ‘Aids taught us how to handle Covid ...

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A quick prayer, no more: ‘Aids taught us how to handle Covid deaths’

A funeral home owner explains how one pandemic’s lessons in dying and dignity readied them for another

Zimasa Matiwane
Sibusiso Mncwabe and Nozipho Nyathikazi from eThekwini Funeral Home are trained in the health and safety protocols for dealing with Covid-19 victims.
Final farewell Sibusiso Mncwabe and Nozipho Nyathikazi from eThekwini Funeral Home are trained in the health and safety protocols for dealing with Covid-19 victims.
Image: Sandile Ndlovu

Existing infrastructure, quickly adapting to health protocols, and comforting families fearing the unknown are some of the ways in which the Aids pandemic prepared Rajesh Maharaj for Covid-19.

As the country prepares to move to level 3 of the lockdown on Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa warned on Sunday that the worst is yet to come, with deaths estimated to reach more than 40,000 by November.

The owner of one of the largest funeral homes in Durban, Maharaj told Times Select his establishment had swiftly adjusted to dealing with death differently during the Covid-19 pandemic and was on standby for the worst.

“At the height of the Aids pandemic we did between 60 and 80 funerals a week; we have done about seven funerals for Covid-19 so far.

“My staff are trained to handle Covid-19 bodies. We have been doing this for 25 years and we learnt with Aids how to handle pandemics,” he said.

As of Sunday, the KwaZulu-Natal government announced that the province had 1,777 cases so far. Deaths were at 49 from 46 last week, while recoveries had risen to 1,168 from 806.

Of these cases, 1,144 are in the eThekwini district, where Maharaj’s funeral home is based.

The casket is not to be opened, the body is not to be viewed, washed or dressed, and burial must take place immediately.
Rajesh Maharaj

The eThekwini Funeral Centre, which has the capacity to handle 150 bodies, dispatches staff to collect bodies in preparation for burial, but Covid-19 deaths must be declared on the phone so undertakers are fully prepared.

“As soon as we have a Covid-19 call, our personnel are trained to quickly put on the personal protective equipment [PPE]; the body comes wrapped in three body bags and we are not supposed to open it.

“We immediately put it into a coffin and the coffin is sealed. We then have 48 hours to do that funeral – we try to push for the funeral or cremation same day or the next day,” Maharaj explained.

But his business goes far beyond preserving and preparing bodies for burial.

He has to liaise with families and explain why age-old rituals cannot be performed for Covid-19 victims. It is difficult, but he has encountered no resistance.

“Although customarily people wash and dress the body, we have been able to explain that it cannot be done for Covid-19 victims. The casket is not to be opened, the body is not to be viewed, washed or dressed, and burial must take place immediately. It is difficult for families but they have come to understand.”

In dealing with Covid-19 deaths, Maharaj said he had noticed fear and confusion, much like during the late 1990s and early 2000s when Aids was killing people in their hundreds.

“With our counselling and advice to families, informing them how serious this is, they are receptive and understanding. Families cannot even take the body home overnight.

“They can come here and have a quick prayer, we have made provision for that. They can do traditional practices like speaking to the deceased, but while the casket is closed – they can’t see the body.”

Maharaj said staff handling Covid-19 bodies received counselling, too.

“Yes, we provide PPE, they are trained to use it appropriately, there are strict health protocols we adhere to including sanitising, but they are people and it will take a toll on them, too. It is important to be supportive to workers, too.”

Protocols include separating Covid-19 bodies from those with other causes of death, to put families at ease, and since bodies are handled differently.

“It is also a new virus, scientists are still trying to understand it, so we have to be strict and take all precautions,” he said.

While eThekwini Funeral Centre has enough manpower, space for bodies and the organisational systems to handle many funerals, he said he wished the government could help funeral parlours with PPE.

“A lot of money is spent on PPE, it is very expensive, but we can’t do this work without it. We quickly prepared when we saw what was happening in other countries, but I would appeal to the government to assist us.”

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