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In Bulilima, Villagers Choose Mourning the Dead Over COVID-19

by Lizwe Sebatha

The impacts of COVID-19 are beyond the numbers of people who have been infected—or those who have died. The virus has changed the manner in which people mourn loved ones, in the process leaving emotional and psychological scars whose scope is unknown.

BULILIMA, August 01, 2020. (The Citizen Bulletin) — In normal circumstances the remains of a dead person are kept at home—overnight, on the eve of burial, to allow people to pay their last respects.

Hundreds of mourners, friends and workmates included, attend funeral gatherings, body viewing is allowed with some funerals going on for days.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted attention from the importance of paying last respects to the deceased, to protecting oneself from the virus by avoiding huge gatherings. Despite restrictions set in place to reduce congestion and funerals, many people are finding it difficult to choose their health over upholding culture and tradition.

Sifanekiso Ndlovu, a councillor for Gala area, Bulilima, Matabeleland South province says traditional leaders are having difficulties discouraging their subjects from attending funeral gatherings in the wake of Covid-19.

“It’s a catch 22 situation where we now find ourselves having to tell people to forgo their cultural rights; the way we conduct burials and not allow them time to grieve, pay their last respects and find closure,” Ndlovu told The Citizen Bulletin.

In April, the government announced that funerals would be conducted within 24 hours to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Funeral gatherings are limited to only 50 people while remains of those who have passed away in foreign lands are supposed to be interred upon arrival in the country. In the past, when family members of the deceased were outside the country, the burial would be delayed to buy time for them to arrive but this is no longer the case.

In Bulilima and Mangwe, the majority of families have relatives, sons and daughters based in neighbouring Botswana and South Africa.

“It’s a painful exercise, we have to conduct burials even at night when the remains of the dead arrive in the country before family members, friends and the community pay their last respects”
Sifanekiso Ndlovu, Gala Councillor

There are no ready statistics of how many Zimbabwean immigrants based in foreign lands have been repatriated for burial since the end of March when authorities first announced measures aimed at controlling Covid-19.

However, there are reports of dead bodies being smuggled across borders alongside basic household items for burial.

The  World Health Organisation (WHO) has said the dignity of the dead and their cultural rights should be respected even during the face of COVID-19. The global health agency has urged authorities to balance the religious rights of the dead with the health and safety of the general public.

“If the family wishes only to view the body and not touch it, they may do so, using standard precautions at all times including hand hygiene. Give the family clear instructions not to touch or kiss the body,” the WHO says.

Anglistone Sibanda, a pastor, was at pains to explain the circumstances his family endured after losing a relative last week.

“It is really painful, but it’s the normal we have got to live with at this point and time,” Sibanda said.

Sibanda says mourners could not view the body and the body was buried within 24 hours.

“There's a lot that needs to be done in terms of trauma healing. As the clergy, we continue sending encouraging messages on social media platforms to the bereaved families, motivating them through this process of finding closure; we are basically doing counselling services virtually,” he adds.

Reverend Clement Zenda who leads a grouping of the clergy under the umbrella term Christian Voice Zimbabwe (CVZ) has appealed for a relaxation of Covid-19 burial regulations to allow mourners to grieve as espoused by the WHO.

“We lament these situations as this has really transcended our traditional and moral values,” Zenda said.

“One would have loved a situation where COVID 19 taskforce teams are allowed to visit funerals proceedings, if possible, to ensure people are abiding by the regulations such as social distancing to allow people time to mourn their loved ones.”

A report in the state-owned Chronicle on Wednesday, July 29 said a nurse contracted COVID-19 while attending a funeral wake in Bulawayo.

Local leaders say their subjects are suffering in silence after losing their loved ones owing to current restrictions on burials in the face of COVID-19.

“It’s culturally inappropriate to stop mourners from body viewing. They need closure. We have no choice now, we have to follow the COVID-19 regulations when conducting funerals.”

Councillor Ndlovu

Sibanda says there’s need to put mechanisms in place for post-trauma healing for people losing their loved ones to COVID-19.

“We are yet to experience the effects of post-traumatic disorders in societies. We should start organising ourselves; especially psychologists and pastors to start initiating counselling.”