Harare, Zimbabwe – Since New Year’s Day, Thomas Rasauka *, gravedigger from Zimbabwe’s capital, has had very little rest.
“We dig 10 to 12 graves a day now,” he said, describing the past few weeks as one of the busiest and busiest times of his 12 years in the profession.
It’s mid-morning Monday, and Rasauka and seven of her colleagues at Warren Hills Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries west of Harare, dig into the semi-dry ground, forcefully throwing loose red sand and l ‘piling to the side.
This is the fifth grave the team has dug since starting work.
Rasauka believes it will be a busy day ahead for him and his colleagues.
“People are dying in large numbers from COVID-19,” he told Al Jazeera. “Three out of five burials here are COVID-19.”
COVID situation “ much worse ”
Zimbabwe has seen a sharp increase in new coronavirus infections and deaths since the end of December. As of Tuesday, the country had recorded 28,675 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 773 deaths – up from 14,084 and 369, respectively, as of January 1.
The characters paint a dark picture. More people – a total of 404 – lost their lives in the first 18 days of the year than throughout 2020, with the average weekly tally of new infections now standing at around 760.
But some believe the official figures do not reflect the true scale of the pandemic.
“They did not start the process of mass testing and mass contact tracing in order to have a real perspective,” said Sithabile Dewah, a human rights activist who lost her brother-in-law in early January to of COVID-19, at Al Jazeera. “The statistics they release every day on COVID-19 patients – those who have died, tested positive and recovered – don’t really reflect the situation on the ground,” Dewah told Al Jazeera.
Wellex Tapera, a 40-year-old entrepreneur in Harare who lost her aunt to COVID-19, said she was only tested and confirmed positive after her death.
Resident Roy Musasiwa also asked for official coronavirus figures, saying he was struggling to get his son admitted to hospital earlier this month.
“The situation is much worse,” he told Al Jazeera.
Government officials, however, rejected the requests. “Our numbers are very precise,” spokesman Nick Mangwana said.
Norman Marara, secretary of the Zimbabwe Association of Physicians for Human Rights, said the published COVID-19 figures were far lower than actual cases. He added, however, that this was “not intentional on the part of the government”, citing delays in providing the data, including delays by “those who practice in private practice” who will not alert authorities. on time.
Yet the recent spike forced the government earlier this month to impose a 30-day lockdown to contain the spread of the virus which has seen a nationwide curfew imposed, gatherings banned and non-essential businesses shut down.
‘No tomb available’
At Warren Hills Cemetery, metal sheets used as makeshift headstones to identify graves show the majority of those who died in the first half of the month, some as recent as Monday.
When Al Jazeera visited the site, workers at a funeral home were frantically trying to secure a grave for a client.
“We were hoping to do the burial today, but we were told there was no grave available,” said a company employee.
Due to an economic crisis characterized by stagnant wages, shortages of foreign exchange, a rapid weakening of the currency, weak industrial production and growing poverty amid hyperinflation which has driven up food prices, a a growing number of families are choosing to bury their deceased in cemeteries owned by the municipality.
Indeed, graves there are much cheaper, costing around 2,000 Zimbabwe dollars ($ 20) on the black market, unlike private cemeteries where fees run into hundreds of US dollars, in a country where a teacher earns a salary. monthly equivalent to 50 dollars.
Harare city spokesman Innocent Ruwende says burials at their two council-owned cemeteries, Warren Hills and Granville, have increased in recent weeks.
“Last year, we buried 18 people [daily] but the numbers have increased in recent weeks. Last week we were burying around 45 people a day on average in our cemeteries, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Ruwende would not be prompted to say whether the jump was due to deaths from COVID-19, referring all questions to the National COVID-19 Working Group.
The chair of the working group, Agnes Mahomva, could not be reached for comment.
Rasauka, the gravedigger, said there was “a backlog of people seeking to bury their dead” at Warren Hills Cemetery. “Sometimes we send them back to other cemeteries like Granville.”
Ruwende said this was due to the labor shortage amid the pandemic.
“Ideally, we have 80 gravediggers and they should do 40 graves a day. Lately some of them haven’t been doing well either. So this affects the number of graves available, ”he said.
It’s not just cemeteries that are inundated – funeral homes have also been hit, with employees now taking more time to remove corpses from homes.
Tapera said her family had to wait seven hours for funeral home staff to come and collect her aunt’s body.
“We were with her in the same room in the house with the body,” he told Al Jazeera.
Taka Svosve, managing director of the Zimbabwe Association of Funeral Insurers, alluded to “constraints” in the sector caused by the recent spike in deaths from COVID-19.
“For now, funeral homes are doing one way or another despite the growing stresses caused by the surge in COVID-19 deaths since the start of the year,” Svosve told Al Jazeera.
He said there was an urgent need to ensure there is enough infrastructure to deal with the consequences of the pandemic if things get worse.
“However, further planning in terms of infrastructure like morgues and even burial space needs to be urgently considered as no one knows when and how this will end,” Svosve said.
He said the government should consider a strategic partnership with funeral homes for the development of related infrastructure to “use in case the current situation turns into a disaster.”
Returning to Warren Hills Cemetery, Prince Mupamombe, a 28-year-old flower seller, said there had been increased traffic in the cemetery in the New Year.
“We have seen a number of COVID-19 funerals come and go. Every day we see them come in and bury the dead, ”he told Al Jazeera.
On some days, Mupamombe, who has been selling flowers at the cemetery for 10 years, has seen as many as 14 COVID-19 funeral processions in the cemetery.
“We can tell from the PPE clothes they wear,” he told Al Jazeera. “Last year we only saw two to three funeral processions a day.”
- Name changed to protect the identity of the person