Dealing with death: The devastating burden of one year of COVID-19 in SA

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South Africans have spent a year dealing with the fatal COVID-19 virus, hearing stories of death and bereavement, as well as the heavy financial impact.

Open graves at a cemetery in Hebron, north of Pretoria, South Africa, ahead of the funeral of a person who died from COVID-19 complications. Picture: Boikhutso Ntsoko/Eyewitness News

JOHANNESBURG – It’s been a year since South Africa recorded its first COVID-19-related death.

Saturday will mark exactly a year since the country entered hard lockdown, Health Minister Zweli Mkhize announced that South Africa had recorded its first death – that of a 48-year-old woman from Cape Town.


The number of known deaths due to COVID-19 now sits at well over 52,000. That means on average, over the past year, six people have succumbed to COVID-19 somewhere in South Africa every single hour.

We’ve spent a year living with the deadly COVID-19 virus, hearing stories of death and bereavement, and most South Africans have had that grief touch their lives directly.

“I just feel it’s cruel. Anyone who has not experienced it personally can never really relate. They just see it. Read the news. You watch people’s funerals. But we’re just walking around like wounded animals.”

This is the sad reality for Lungie Sokupa, who lost both her mother Tammie Mancotywa and brother Phiwe Mancotywa to the virus.

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The two were so ill that they were not even aware that they were fighting for their lives in the same Eastern Cape hospital ward.

“I don’t even think we have grieved as a family because it’s as if we haven’t buried them. None of my family members have seen them. We don’t even know who we have buried. We hope it was them. COVID has proven it’s bigger than anyone of us,” said Sokupa.

With science developing by the day and the experience of the first and second waves under our belts, South Africa seems to be more prepared for the inevitable third wave.

However, clinical psychologist Zamo Mbele said the impact of losing someone to the COVID-19 pandemic could impact society for many generations, especially in cases where people had not been able to grieve properly.

“Because most of the time as human beings we have customs and practices, which help us process the loss of a person and then get us into the process of grieving. That has been incredibly disrupted.”

The effects of the viral pandemic are all too clear to see, but the extent of the pandemic of grief could take many years to become apparent.

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For the business sector, the impact has already been keenly felt.

In the space of 12 months, almost every industry has had to change the way it operates.

And in the times of a pandemic, the business of death and burial has had to step up.

“We had the first wave. We’ve now seen the second. We are now preparing ourselves for the eventuality of the third wave, if it comes,” said Reggie Moloi, the manager of cemeteries in the City of Johannesburg.

He told Eyewitness News that they had enough burial space for now, but if the situation worsened drastically, they would have to change their plans.

“We already have spaces reserved should the need arise for mass burials. Like in Brazil, where they were putting boxes on top of each other. We have sites reserved for that kind of eventuality if it comes – God forbid. In Olifantsvlei, we’ve got space, in Midrand, Diepsloot, Westpark.

“Thankfully we have not used the spaces we have reserved for COVID cases. We have buried as normal – not in mass graves.”

Before the pandemic, we were accustomed to a certain kind of funeral. But the new normal has put a stop to that.

At the Avalon Cemetery in Soweto – one of the largest burial sites in the country – only small groups of mourners may gather to pay their last respects.

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“It’s a sad part. Out here, funerals are a community thing. People come out, young men come with spades after the funeral to close the grave, but now there is none of that,” said Moloi.

“You stand from afar and you put yourself in their shoes – what if that was me? This pandemic has served us badly.”

The reality of the pandemic has also had a knock-on effect on the grave diggers at the Avalon Cemetery, such as Murendeni Mbabo.

“Initially we were able to make around R500 a day. Now I would say R50 or R70 a day. It’s because people are scared of us.

“They are scared that we work here and we might also have COVID – we do empathise with the pain of those that have lost. We would like to get vaccinated too,” said Mbabo.

The hope that the vaccine could bring is a common theme across South African society.

And while the COVID-related fatalities of more than 54,000 is nowhere near the initial model’s predictions, with the third wave looming, those numbers will inevitably rise.

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