Morgues battle Covid deaths

Morgues battle Covid deaths

MASERU-MKM Burial Society chief executive officer, Simon Thebe-ea-Khale, is an extremely concerned man.
He has every reason to be worried.

Over the last few weeks, Thebe-ea-Khale has seen a frightening surge in Covid-19 deaths in Lesotho.
In the early 1990s, Thebe-ea-Khale saw HIV/AIDS mow down Basotho when the disease was at its peak.
But he says Covid-19 could be the worst.

Of course, Thebe-ea-Khale does not make this statement lightly. He was there in the 1990s and has been around in the last few weeks as Covid-19 spread furiously across the country.
The results are evident all over – in packed mortuaries.
Thebe-ea-Khale says it is an undeniable fact that there has been a surge in the number of Covid-19-related deaths in Lesotho.
The deaths are putting a strain on mortuaries but they have not thrown in the towel yet.

He says in some cases they have had to take to their mortuaries a man and a woman from the same household.
“In some cases, it is a woman and her child,” Thebe-ea-Khale says.
If Basotho do not observe the World Health Organisation-recommended Covid-19 protocols, we can expect carnage in Lesotho, he warns.

Thebe-ea-Khale says Basotho must do away with the culture of coming to the mortuaries in large crowds to collect bodies because such practices only help to fuel the spread of the virus.
It is the norm in Lesotho for families to converge at funeral parlours to pick up loved ones for burials on Friday and then make elaborate convoys to the home of the deceased for the funeral wake.
Thebe-ea-Khale says he has been able to keep all the bodies that were brought to his funeral parlour.

What has kept them afloat during this pandemic is that they have people who were specifically trained to handle Covid-19 bodies.
He says their training is a continuous programme.
He says they have PPE for people who fetch bodies from homes.
At Sentebale Gap Funeral Services, Chief Executive Officer Aliciah Motšoane has a problem: motivating staff at a time bodies are mounting and demand for mortuary space is increasing.

Motšoane says they still cater for their ordinary clients at the mortuary but the Covid-19 bodies are taking the front seat.
“This is a crisis. The death toll has spiked due to Covid,” Motšoane says.
But she declined to disclose the number of bodies they receive in a day as “this is business and involves our clients”.

“We are afraid as Sentebale. We do not know about other mortuaries,” Motšoane says.
Under normal circumstances, two people are dispatched to help families bury their dead but because of Covid-19, today four are dispatched.
Staff at the company’s five parlours across the country is depressed, she says but at the same time they need to be available for the increasing workload.

Most of the bodies coming to the funeral parlour are linked to Covid-19 deaths.
Under normal circumstances, the funeral parlour which is headquartered in Mafeteng district receives three to four bodies at each office, but figures have spiked in recent weeks.

“We are seeing people dying, we are not being told that people are dying,” Motšoane says.
For professional reasons, Motšoane refused to divulge the number of bodies the parlour is receiving daily due to Covid-19, but said staff members are spooked.

“We are afraid as Sentebale. My staff here are depressed but they are still working. Their fear is that they might also be infected,” Motšoane said, adding: “But they are still working. We do not know about other mortuaries.”
Luckily, her parlour still has some space.

Lesotho Funeral Service Chief Operations Manager, Jonase Molapo, said bodies began piling up in December towards the festive season as many Basotho crossed into the country from their workplaces in South Africa, which is the worst-hit country in Africa.
“This second wave has hit us badly. Numbers have been increasing dramatically,” Molapo says.

He however also declined to reveal how many bodies they are collecting every day except saying “the numbers are harrowing”.
While focus has been on the strain faced by hospitals, where beds and other essentials such as oxygen sometimes run out and staff is often demoralised, few have given thought to those who handle the bodies at mortuaries and help to ensure burials are compliant with World Health Organisation protocols.

Because Basotho have a culture of burying their dead on Saturdays, bodies are at times held at funeral parlours for weeks – a situation that is untenable in Covid-19 times.
Prime Minister Moeketsi Majoro has encouraged people to break away with tradition and bury people three days after their deaths.
Dr Majoro pleaded with the public to cut the numbers of people attending funerals because they have proved to be super spreaders.

Funeral parlours say despite the overwhelming numbers, they have been able to handle the situation so far.
“Covid-19 bodies are handled in a special way. Our people have to wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), which has become fairly expensive of late,” says Motšoane of Sentebale Gap Funeral Services.

She says a disposable PPE suit now costs M250, up from M80. The prices of fumigation substances have also gone up, she says.
Under normal circumstances, two workers are dispatched to help families bury their dead but because of Covid-19, funeral parlours have increased that number to four.

Molapo, of Lesotho Funeral Service, says the Ministry of Health gave them “unwavering support” on how to handle the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We were trained on how to handle the Covid-19 bodies. Remember we were the first ones to receive a Covid-19 body,” he says, adding that the training helped them to be vigilant.
“These days we treat each body that comes to the mortuary as if it’s a Covid-19 case,” he says.

The work is not easy, especially when relatives deny that their loved ones died of Covid-19 and insist on carrying out usual traditions.
There is still a stigma associated with Covid deaths in Lesotho.
“This is a big problem,” he says.
Despite the deaths and rising number of infections, many Basotho still neglect to take preventive measures such as washing hands with soap under running water, maintaining social distancing and wearing face masks.

It is such complacent attitudes that alarm funeral parlour operators such as Motšoane.
“People should follow World Health Organisation (WHO) protocols to the core… We are seeing people dying,” Motšoane says.
In terms of business, the high number of deaths does not necessarily translate into more money for funeral parlours as believed by some, the operators said.

“We feel bad when people die in large numbers. We become happy when people are alive because they pay for their policies,” says Thebe-ea-Khale, “So if they die, it means we are going to lose business.”
The National Covid-19 Secretariat says 101 people have died of Covid since the disease broke out in December 2019, a figure health workers have disputed saying it is a gross understatement.

As Covid deaths mount, fear is gripping the people as they see their family members succumb to the disease right in front of their eyes.
Hospital beds are full.
Others are now forced to take their medication at home while others die waiting for their Covid-19 test results.

Another mortuary boss who declined to be named told thepost that they have also seen a spike in the number of bodies being brought to the mortuaries.
“We are trying to handle the bodies with great care here,” the official said.
He said they had now struck a deal with their clients that the bodies should be kept for just two days before they are taken out for burial.

He said while their staff members were willing to work with Covid-19 bodies they too were afraid that they might get infected.
Other mortuaries flatly refused to speak to thepost about the issue.

Majara Molupe

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