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South Africa's funeral parlours turn to makeshift mortuaries as virus deaths rise

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Behind Monageng Legae’s funeral parlour in the South African township of Soweto sits a refrigerated shipping container made to store chilled goods. Now it stores bodies.

Funeral businesses like Legae’s Sopema Funerals have taken such measures to cope with the influx of bodies into their morgues as South Africa’s coronavirus cases rise above half a million, with deaths at around 9,000.

Surrounded by coffins in his showroom and wearing a protective mask and visor, Legae told Reuters that he handled 85 funerals in June and 75 in July, compared with 30 a month this time last year.

The cost of the container, along with outlays on a temporary outdoor waiting area, more staff and an additional night shift, has helped wipe out additional revenues.

Legae said the government should do more for under-pressure funeral parlours. “People forget that this industry is actually playing a pivotal role.”

Funeral directors say that beyond the spike in deaths from COVID-19 - the disease associated with the coronavirus - they have to cope with coffin shortages and delays in the issuance of death certificates.

Data showed in July that South Africa had 59% more deaths than would normally be expected between early May and mid-July, suggesting more people were dying of COVID-19 than official figures show.

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Amid the scramble, funeral parlours aren’t always able to balance strict regulations with the expected sensitivity: there have been reports in local media of the wrong bodies being interred.

Stephen Fonseca, regional forensics adviser for Africa at the International Committee of the Red Cross, said South Africa’s experience should serve as a warning for other nations as the continent’s cases near 1 million.

“Once a country is facing a COVID-19 surge, it is too late to plan for how to manage mass casualties in a way that is both safe for the body handlers and dignified for the families of the deceased,” he said.

Even Avbob, the country’s biggest funeral provider by market share that was established during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic, has had to make changes to cope with COVID-19.

It has buried some 25% of the country’s coronavirus dead and saw a 60% rise in burials in July, Pieter van der Westhuizen, its general manager funeral service, said, adding Avbob has set up 13 mortuaries in shipping containers and is building 4 more.

“If we didn’t ... we might have ran into trouble,” he said.

Reporting by Emma Rumney; Editing by Olivia Kumwenda-Mtambo and Mike Collett-White

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