Zimbabwe’s public mortuary crisis

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For hours, Edgar Mukura had to endure the gut-turning stench of decomposing flesh wafting from the Sally Mugabe Central Hospital (formerly Harare Central Hopital) mortuary as he sat on one of the concrete benches within the premises of the public health facility, one of the biggest in the southern African country.

He was waiting for post-mortem results in order to collect the body of his sister-in-law, who had succumbed to pregnancy-related complications.

“I have been here since morning and I am trying to ignore the smell,” the 32-year-old businessman told Al Jazeera as he steadied himself to wait more hours. “I am not sure when I will get them [results].”

Yet he considered himself fortunate enough to be sitting outside, unlike the previous day.

“If you think this smell is bad out here, wait until you get inside,” he told Al Jazeera authoritatively. “I went inside yesterday to identify my sister-in-law, I have never experienced anything like that.”

As he sauntered closer to the entrance of the morgue, the overpowering smell of rotting human flesh hit him hard. Still, nauseated as he was, he forced himself into some mortuary-issued overalls and white gumboots and delicately strode past hundreds of lifeless bodies.

“It starts from the door and gets worse with each step you take inside,” Mukura told Al Jazeera. “Bodies are stacked on top of others on shelves. It is a heap of corpses everywhere. One has to literally look at every one of them to identify a loved one.”

“Sally Mugabe Hospital Mortuary needs urgent attention,” wrote popular comedian Prosper “Comic Pastor” Ngomashi on his Facebook page after visiting the mortuary last week.

Ngomashi told Al Jazeera that he was “choked by the smell of rotting bodies”, even though he had a mask on. “I have been to other funeral homes,” he said, “and I did not realise that there were dead bodies on the premises.”

Infrastructure issues

Thousands of bereaved families thronging public mortuaries across Zimbabwe to retrieve the bodies of their loved ones have had to endure similar horrific experiences. But it is most evident in Harare, home to more than three million people.

Experts said the public facilities have limited holding capacities. Figures of annual deaths are hard to come by in Zimbabwe, but mortuaries at three of its biggest public hospitals were built to take only about 150 bodies even though they handle much more.

In December, one of them — Chitungwiza Central Hospital, which caters for the satellite town just outside Harare — was holding bodies in excess of its capacity, according to staff. In the same period, Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals was holding upwards of 200 bodies or four times its capacity.

Sally Mugabe Central Hospital chief executive Christopher Pasi said the mortuary was holding bodies way above its installed capacity.

“Remember the infrastructure was built a long time ago for a smaller Harare and now the city has grown exponentially. We are working on plans to expand our holding capacity. We have a plan to resuscitate a stalled mortuary construction project”, he said.

Pasi added:“We are usually almost always above holding capacity, “Bodies are not frozen in morgues. They are chilled to a certain temperature. Once the capacity is exceeded, that affects the distribution of temperature in the mortuary and hence the odours.”

At private hospitals, unaffordable for most citizens in a country where half of the population lives on below US$30 a month, there is always plenty of room for the dead.

The power situation in the country has also worsened the situation.

Last September, Zesa imposed load-shedding schedules lasting up to 12 hours, citing limited generation capacity and repairs to power infrastructure. Since then, power outages have become everyday occurrences.

The country relies heavily on, the Kariba South Hydro and Hwange Power Station.

Both power stations have a combined generation capacity of 2 000 megawatts. Hwange operates on obsolete equipment and needs periodic maintenance because of frequent breakdowns while Kariba, which requires a certain level of water to generate to full capacity, has been affected by low rainfall.

For even experienced hands in the end-of-life business, things have become so bad that they now dread the prospect of getting into the morgues.

“Of all the mortuaries, Sally Mugabe Hospital is the worst,” Albert Rugare, a funeral-home undertaker with more than a decade of experience, told Al Jazeera. “A terrible smell greets you when they open the doors and you never get used to it. It is the part of the job I hate.”

Rugare blamed archaic technology and the chemicals the hospital morticians use to embalm the bodies for the smell.

No dignity in life and death

Zimbabwe is in the grips of an economic crisis characterised by a rapidly devaluing local currency, rising inflation that has eroded purchasing power, foreign currency shortage, low manufacturing production and unemployment of up to 90%.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also led to increased health complications for many locals.

Industry insiders said that has led to socio-economic issues that also delay the collection of corpses in some cases, leading to a congestion of the facilities. Culture too often makes things complex, they added.

“In some cases, in-laws refuse to bury their deceased because of customary issues like payment of lobola [bride price] by the husband of a deceased woman,” Pasi said.

In some cases, bodies remain uncollected for up to four months, some being bodies brought in by police from murder  or road accident scenes.

In other cases, people are just too poor to afford the funeral and corpses end up staying in the morgues for as long as a year, sometimes years.

Chitungwiza Central Hospital spokesperson Audrey Tasaranarwo denied having an overload.

In December, Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals spokesperson Linos Dhire confirmed his hospital was holding bodies in excess of its capacity but blamed the situation on a shortage of forensic pathologists in the country. He withheld comments on the current capacity.Health deputy minister John Mangwiro declined to comment.

“Which mortuaries are full?” he asked. “I am not in a position to comment as I am driving.

You would have to speak to the chief director in my ministry or I will have an accident.”

Harare-based political scientist Rashweat Mukundu said the authorities had failed to cater to a growing population in the capital and called for investment in public health infrastructure.

“There is no notable improvement to mortuary services, with some built before 1980 still expected to cater for a growing population,” he said.

“In life and death, the Zimbabwean government has failed to offer dignity to its people and this has left many families in distress,” he said. Al Jazeera