South Africa turns to non permanent morgues as COVID-19 deaths rise

South Africa is the continent’s hardest hit country in the pandemic, with more than 1.4 million coronavirus cases and 40,800 deaths.

A morgue attendant at the Johannesburg office of South African undertaker and undertaker Avbob checks the condition of a protective cover in a refrigerated container that is used to isolate corpses of patients who have died of COVID-19-related diseases prior to their burial on January 22, 2021 Image: AFP

JOHANNESBURG – The cold hits you first. Then comes the smell.

In a refrigerated shipping container are 17 corpses wrapped in plastic, each with a yellow label that says “highly contagious”.

The 12-meter steel box was installed in a morgue in Johannesburg to deal with the rising tide of COVID-19 deaths.

The container can hold up to 40 bodies and keep them constant at zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit).

“We have seen an increase of around 40 percent (in corpses) nationwide,” said spokesman Marius du Plessis from AVBOB, a leading funeral service provider in the country.

South Africa is the continent’s hardest hit country in the pandemic, with more than 1.4 million coronavirus cases and 40,800 deaths.

It has already struggled to fight back infections as they soared to unprecedented levels this month after scientists discovered a new variant of the virus that was widely believed to be more contagious.

To save the influx of bodies and ensure COVID-19 victims are segregated from others, AVBOB has distributed 22 containers that are normally used to move goods to its 250 South African morgues.


At a funeral home in the administrative capital, Pretoria, an undertaker ties a third layer of plastic around a corpse that was sent from a coronavirus infirmary that morning.

Only the feet, arms and head can be distinguished from the tightly wound bundle lying on a stainless steel table and surrounded by white tiled walls.

The body must be buried soon.

“Covid corpses can be kept for a maximum of seven days,” said facility manager Naomi Van der Heever.

The surrounding cold stores are almost full, and 200 bodies are waiting to be buried or cremated. More than half succumbed to the virus.

“You have to go quickly, it’s a record,” said Van der Heever.

“With the turnover we avoided full capacity.”


The coffin makers also feel the strain.

“I can no longer take orders”, the secretary of the Johannesburg manufacturer Enzo Wood repeats every time she answers the phone.

More than 100 workers have been working non-stop since early morning, spraying sawdust all over the factory.

The sound is deafening as the machines spin relentlessly eight hours a day and produce dozens of wooden planks.

Assembling a coffin only takes 20 minutes.

Enzo Wood is now working at maximum capacity and producing 300 coffins per day. Orders are flying off the warehouse shelves, making it impossible to build up inventory.

Sales Manager Kasie Pillay noted that the demand for “oversized” boxes had increased the most. There is evidence that obese people and people with chronic diseases like diabetes are at higher risk from COVID-19.

However, the cost has also increased, making it difficult to work with good quality wood and materials.

“Some are trying to take advantage of this time, while others have raised prices,” said Pillay. “The handles on the boxes, for example.”

Coffins are a symbolic investment for grieving families in South Africa, where funerals are expensive ceremonies marked with week-long vigils, decorations, and catering.

Some of Enzo Wood’s fanciest coffins can be sold for up to R6,500 ($ 426).

But priorities have changed during the pandemic.

“Undertakers are no longer interested in what they get as long as they get something to bury the Covid patients,” said Pillay.

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