SA cities prepare for mass graves as Covid-19 death toll climbs
The Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg metros are making plans for a possible flood of deaths
As SA’s Covid-19 death toll rose to 25 at the weekend – with health minister Dr Zweli Mkhize still warning about a calm before the storm – municipalities are preparing emergency cemeteries and even mulling the possibility of mass burials should the body count climb.
The pandemic has claimed the lives of nearly 115,000 people across the world and roiled the global economy, with SA now in the middle of a public health crisis.
While the rate of infection appears to have been stayed by a national lockdown and screening and testing initiatives – which are set to be ramped up – city officials in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban are preparing for the worst.
The three metros are at this stage the hardest-hit in SA.
Cape Town mayoral committee member for community services and health Zahid Badroodien said several contingency measures had been considered, among them mass graves.
“According to projections provided by provincial health, which are informed by global trends, the city has recognised the possible need for mass burials.
“[The city] has done preliminary identification of cemeteries with the highest value of available space which is ready and can accommodate such high numbers,” he said.
Badroodien said a process was also under way to earmark cemeteries that could be extended “for the specific purposes of Covid-19 burials”.
Moreover, should the death toll soar, the city would impose weekday funeral time-slots to accommodate the potential demand.
The US is now the global epicentre for the coronavirus, with nearly 500,000 confirmed infections and 18,600 dead.
In New York, overwhelmed officials were using mass graves to dispose of the dead, the BBC reported.
eThekwini municipality spokesperson Msawakhe Mayisela said the city had taken a multifaceted approach, including recycling graves at 66 cemeteries while trying to extend their boundaries.
“Another thing we are looking at is the Cemeteries Land Acquisition report which is to be tabled at the Exco [executive committee] meeting for adoption as soon as possible,” he said.
Mayisela said the report had identified pockets of land the city would consider for new cemeteries.
On mass graves, he added the municipality may use “emergency laws” to fast-track the acquisition of land.
“This will provide reasonable alternatives for rapid decision-making,” he said.
Those decisions were inevitable, said the SA Cemeteries Association, who urged municipalities to plan for the worst.
“Even without the threat of the virus and the impending catastrophe, SA cities are currently challenged with the disposal of remains, be it in the provision of burial space or cremating our loved ones,” a statement read.
“This will prove to be a serious challenge as SA is poorly equipped for cremations, the recommended method by authorities, locally and internationally, for managing the treatment of corpses infected with the virus.”
It was estimated, they said, that there were less than 100 crematoria available in the country, which would be insufficient for the anticipated demand.
“Many of these facilities are currently overburdened and in frequent need of repair,” the body said.
“Municipalities need to identify available graves in advance for ideally burying a body in a single grave as opposed to a communal or mass grave. If it is logistically difficult to bury large numbers in single graves, then communal or mass graves need to be prepared,” they warned.
In Johannesburg, mayoral committee member Margaret Arnolds said cemeteries and crematoria were prepared for the possibility of an increase in demand for mass burials relative to the Covid-19 pandemic.
She said the city’s three crematoria could manage the cremation of 41 people per day should the need arise.