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South Africa

As Covid-19 deaths stalk South Africa, Durban fears shortage of graves

Durban – AS the death toll of Covid-19 is expected to rise in the next few months as the country begins to open, eThekwini municipality has confirmed a dire shortage of burial space.

But the National Funeral Practitioners’ Association of South Africa (Nafupa) has accused the City of dragging its heels on buying new land for cemeteries, saying sites were identified four years ago – one of which has enough space to provide graves for “a hundred years”.

Yesterday, eThekwini municipality spokesperson, Msawakhe Mayisela, said while the City was focusing on flattening the curve of the pandemic rather than thinking about mass graves, only five of the city’s 65 graveyards would be able to accept new graves by the year’s end.

“Nine are in operation,” he said, describing the desperate shortage of space as “a tightening noose around the neck of the municipality”.

He said processes were under way to acquire more land for burial space to the north, west and south of the city.

“Those processes are at an advanced stage. And there are also processes we need to embark on of geotech and environment assessments. Once done, that land will be available for burials,” he said, adding that an immediate option was an old site on Loon Road (Sherwood) which has space for 5000 graves.

But Muzi Hlengwa, president of Nafupa, the majority of whose members are from KwaZulu-Natal, said yesterday four sites around Durban had been identified by the municipality as far back as 2016, but that nothing had been done.

These included land in Verulam to the north, Inchanga, Hammarsdale to the west and Vulamehlo to the south.

“There is land which was identified years ago. The site in Verulam is 840hectares in size and that would give us more than 100 years’ worth of space for burials.

“We were told there was no money in the budget, then there was enough money to buy land. The next thing we heard was that there were ‘some issues’.

“We don’t understand what these issues were as nothing has ever been put on the table spelling them out. All we have heard are promises after promises.

“eThekwini has a budget of R52billion for the coming year, where is the money for cemeteries?” said Hlengwa.

He added that many of the city’s cemeteries remained closed. “Very few cemeteries are operational and all of them are recycled graves, changing over every 10 years. Not only Durban is suffering, but the whole of KZN. The municipality needs to urgently prioritise land for burials,” said Hlengwa, adding that another unaddressed problem was that Mobeni Heights Crematorium had not been functioning for more than three years. He also confirmed that temporary mortuaries in containers were being prepared ahead of the expected surge in Covid-19 deaths and that funeral parlour owners and staff had undergone training to handle Covid-19 cases.

“Our challenge is the cost of PPE (personal protective clothing) because a body is handled six times by staff and (for every task involving preparing the body), each staffer has to change and dispose of PPE six times for each body.”

Chairman of the SA Funeral Directors’ Association, Logan Chetty, said the refurbishment work on Mobeni Crematorium had stopped when lockdown began and would continue when the country moved to level 3 of lockdown.

Two crematoriums, Tongaat and Stellawood, remain operational.

The municipality said “lockdown hiccups” had been experienced with Mobeni Heights Crematorium, but that 80% of the refurbishment was complete.

Thegraj Kassie, secretary of the Clare Estate Umgeni Hindu Crematorium Society, said the organisation was experiencing higher demand than usual, processing an average of 15 bodies a day.

He said the organisation was expecting the usual winter increase in deaths because of respiratory illnesses. They also anticipated an increase of Covid-19 cases when lockdown is lifted.

“It may happen,” said Kassie.

As of now the organisation has five furnaces and plans are on hold, because of Covid-19, for another to be installed.

Ahmed Paruk, vice-chairman of the Muslim Undertakers’ Association, said space allocated to Muslim graves at cemeteries was still available.

Yesterday, the number of confirmed cases in South Africa was 12739 with 238 deaths and 5676 recoveries. This week, Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize said the decision to implement a lockdown was a timeous one which allowed South Africa to deflect the curve.

But, he said, flattening the curve was an ongoing process: “We have tried and done our best. The president has led strongly from the front. We need the public to help us to continue to fight the pandemic.”

President Cyril Ramaphosa on Wednesday said at the current estimate, without the lockdown and other measures taken, “at least 80000 South Africans could have been infected by now”. “And the death toll could have been at least eight times higher than it is.

“By contrast, at a similar stage in the progression of the disease, the United States had recorded over 22000 deaths and the United Kingdom over 19000 deaths

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