By Lehlohonolo Lehana.
The ministerial advisory committee (MAC) on Covid-19 has told Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize that government must abolish the practice of wrapping coffins of the Covid-19 dead.
The committee said unlike Ebola, Covid-19 cannot be transmitted from a corpse. It also stressed that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has clarified the difference between death from Ebola and Covid-19 and the burial requirement for each.
This was contained in an internal memo from the committee and sent to Mkhize on Monday this week.
The committee, which includes Professor Salim S Abdool Karim, said the practice contravenes certain cultural beliefs and rituals. It added that consequently, some graves have been dug up, the bodies illegally exhumed and the plastic coverings removed and the coffin reburied without approval and following guidelines.
Said the committee: "To date, there is no reported case of Sars.CoV-2 transmission from a dead body to a human. There is very little risk of infection being transmitted from a dead body to those carefully handling the corpse.
The possibility of the virus escaping during pressure applied to the chest soon after death might expel live virus but this has not been proven.
"When dealing with a dead body, all handlers must ensure that IPC precautions are in place such as wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), which protects the body respiratory tract and mucous membranes from accidental splash contamination. Hand hygiene, good ventilation and a clean environment is essential," the committee said.
Some reports indicate that some funeral parlours have been charging up to R7 500 to wrap a coffin with plastic as a measure to prevent Covid-19 transmission.
The wrapping of bodies and coffins in plastic coverings prior to burial is unnecessary. Transmission at funerals occurs amongst the living due to overcrowding, lack of social distancing and wearing of masks, carrying out hand hygiene and good ventilation. WHO recommends the use of body bags to transfer the corpse from the hospital bed to the mortuary or funeral parlour for preparation.
"This is to avoid exposure to body fluids. If there are no signs of fluid leak, a shroud is acceptable. All those handling the body, whether HCW or family, must abide by the rules of carefully handling the body, hand hygiene, wearing appropriate PPE, and cleaning/ disinfection after the process is completed," the committee wrote.
Meanwhile the human remains should only be conveyed to the deceased's home on the day of the burial and viewing is only allowed under control environment within a mortuary or funeral undertakers` premises. These measures are still necessary to control the spread of COVID-19 amongst mourners.
Exhumation is a process of removing human remains from a grave and is regulated under the regulations governing the management of human remains promulgated on 22nd May 2013.The law states exhumation or reburial shall not be done unless:
- Authorized by the relevant government and permitted by the relevant municipality; or
- A court order is issued by a magistrate of the court and shall be permitted by the relevant local government in whose jurisdiction the exhumation and reburial will take place.
Members of the public wishing to exhume human remains must do so following the provisions of the above-mentioned legislation. Therefore, illegal exhumation of human remains is prohibited and is punishable by law.