The dead become pawns in undertaker strike

The dead have joined the tussle between government and funeral practitioners, becoming the undertaking industry's unwitting allies in their protest action on Monday. Bereaved families have been left in limbo, unable to move their departed loved ones as undertakers, grouped under the Unification Task Team (UTT), have declared that no private undertaker will move a body from Monday at midnight. Undertakers in their hearses parked at government mortuaries and hospitals across the country, to ensure that no corpse will moved unless if it was moved by the state itself. This presents a potential crisis, as government mortuaries have no capacity...
The dead have joined the tussle between government and funeral practitioners, becoming the undertaking industry's unwitting allies in their protest action on Monday.

Bereaved families have been left in limbo, unable to move their departed loved ones as undertakers, grouped under the Unification Task Team (UTT), have declared that no private undertaker will move a body from Monday at midnight.

Undertakers in their hearses parked at government mortuaries and hospitals across the country, to ensure that no corpse will moved unless if it was moved by the state itself.

This presents a potential crisis, as government mortuaries have no capacity to store and remove all dead bodies from hospitals, accident scenes, or people who die of natural causes at homes.

The health department has raised concerns about the environmental health risk that the action poses, as government mortuaries started taking strain.

Undertakers want the outsourcing of storage facilities to be made legal, as small operators were unable to fund their own facilities and cannot be issued with the Certificate of Competency (COC) that the health department insists on for a removal of a body from a state morgue.

Small operators without storage facilities rely on more established counterparts, who have COCs, while building their own storage.

They explained that if the health department insists on the COC, this means the smaller operators will be run out of business.

Mduduzi Masilela, UTT's coordinator in the Nkangala region in Mpumalanga, said they were not consulted when decisions were taken by government and that a crisis situation was the only language government understood.

"It is a culmination of many issues, including the fact that we are sidelined by the Road Accident Fund, and we have received no Covid-19 relief funds though we are required to procure Personal Protective Equipment. We are saying this is a shutdown and we have warned all operators not to remove bodies until our demands are met," he said.

At KwaMhlanga hospital in Mpumalanga, a family that arrived on Monday morning to collect a body to take to Polokwane, closer to home, for a burial this weekend, was met by a group of undertakers blocking their way.

"We did not even know about the strike and preparations have been made back home. We have travelled almost 200 kilometres to collect my brother's remains but it seems he will be stuck here for some time," Jacob Phetla said.

The strike will prove particularly traumatic to families with loved ones who are dying at home during this period, as no undertaker will risk being attacked or having their property destroyed for removing a body.

Walter Mbatha, director of Kwelamathongo Funeral Services in KwaZulu-Natal, said they received a call to remove a body on Monday morning but they could not because of the strike.

"Had we done so, our employees would have been attacked or even killed and the hearse torched. This is going to be a disaster, because bodies will pile up at government mortuaries, leading to a health risk," he said.

Popo Maja, department of health spokesperson, said no one was allowed to obstruct another person from performing their lawful duties.

"What they are doing now, stopping the removal of bodies, is obstruction and their actions is an environmental health concern," he said.

Maja they have held talks with the undertakers previously, but they could not find common ground. Despite this, the department's doors are always open for talks, and he believes the situation will not present a crisis if operators not involved in the action are allowed to work.

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