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No dignity ‘in life and death’: Zimbabwe’s public mortuary crisis

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Harare, Zimbabwe – For hours, Edgar Mukura had to endure the gut-turning stench of decomposing flesh wafting from the Harare Central Hospital mortuary as he sat on one of the concrete benches within the premises of the hospital, one of the biggest in the Southern African country.

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

“I have been here since morning and I am trying to ignore the smell,” the 32-year-old self-employed 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 … and 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 up on top of the other on shelves. It’s a heap of corpses everywhere. One has to literally look at every one of them to identify a loved one.”

“Harare 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 didn’t realise that they 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 say 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 to a 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 CEO Dr Christopher Pasi says the hospital 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,” he told Al Jazeera by telephone. “We are working on plans to expand our holding capacity. We have a plan to resuscitate a stalled mortuary construction project.”

“We are usually almost always above holding capacity,” Pasi added. “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 $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, the Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA), the national power utility company, 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 its only hydropower plant, the Kariba South Power Station, and Hwange Power Station, the largest of its coal-fired power stations.

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 full capacity power, 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, Harare 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’s the part of the job I hate.”

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

Industry insiders said that has led to socioeconomic 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 customary things like lobola [bride price] were not paid by the husband for a deceased wife,” Pasi said.

In some cases, bodies remain uncollected for up to four months, some being bodies brought in by police from murder scenes. In other cases, people are just too poor to afford the funeral and end up staying in the morgues for as long as a year, sometimes years.

Chitungwiza Central Hospital Spokesperson Audrey Tasaranarwo denied having any overload.

In December, Parirenyatwa Group of Hospitals Spokesperson Lenos Dhire had 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.

Deputy Health 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 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,” Mukundu told Al Jazeera.