Coronavirus Eastern Cape

Funerals suspended in parts of province as Covid-19 infections rise

Funerals suspended in parts of province as Covid-19 infections rise
A picture showing large crowds and congestion at the funeral of horse owner Anele Luntinto in Qumbu recently. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

A kingdom in the rural Eastern Cape has suspended funerals as the rate of Coronavirus infections keep climbing in the province, with many of the cases being linked to funerals. Meanwhile, the MEC for Health has warned that there might come a time when people testing positive will no longer be given a chance to self-isolate, but will be taken to state quarantine sites. She said she was shocked by communities ignoring lockdown regulations.

The AmaMpondomise Kingdom under King Zwelozuko Matiwane has taken a drastic decision to suspend all gatherings including funerals as part of combating an increasing number of coronavirus infections in the Eastern Cape.

This comes as the MEC for Health, Sindiswa Gomba, said on Monday 27 April that there might come a time when the provincial government will no longer allow people to self-isolate, as coronavirus infections are rapidly spreading in the province.

President Cyril Ramaphosa declared the outbreak of coronavirus infections a national disaster on 15 March and subsequently ordered that the country go into lockdown on 27 March. Lockdown regulations are expected to be slightly relaxed from 1 May.

Gomba said there had been widespread disregard of lockdown regulations in Nelson Mandela Bay, currently the district in the province with the highest number of cases, at 239.

A recent funeral in Libode with no sign of physical distancing among those attending. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase.)


She also expressed her deep concern over rising cases in rural areas. The OR Tambo district has registered 48 cases and the Chris Hani district 76.

The decision by the king means no funerals or night vigils will be allowed to take place in all villages that fall under the AmaMpondomise (Qumbu, Tsolo, Ugie and Maclear).

Instead, the AmaMpondomise Kingdom will use an old tradition called ukuqhusheka meaning the body will be taken straight to the graveyard where only 10 family members will be permitted.

People are standing shoulder to shoulder at the recent funeral of horse owner Anele Luntinto in Qumbu. (Photo: Hoseya Jubase)

“The decision calls to everyone within the kingdom of AmaMpondomise, especially the affected families, to consider the old tradition of ukuqhusheka custom,” AmaMpondomise spokesperson Nkosi Bakhanyisele Ranuga said.

“Just use this as a shortcut send-off to bury loved ones and continue with the full funeral service and rituals at a later stage when the country is in Stage (Level) 1 of the lockdown or next when everything is clear.”

The decision by AmaMpondomise to suspend funerals came after the Eastern Cape health department confirmed another 40 people had tested positive for Covid-19 from Majola village, Port St John’s after attending a funeral in March.

So far, OR Tambo district municipality has more than 50 confirmed cases, in Tombo village, Majola village, New Payne and eNdibela village.

Ranuga said traditional leaders have also started an educational programme to teach grave diggers about safety measures.

“We have taken this decision after experiencing that funerals are epicentres of infection after another 40 people were confirmed positive with Covid-19 who were attending a funeral in Majola village in Port St Johns”.

“This raised the concerns about funeral gatherings as the main source of this transmission. As a responsible kingdom there is an urgent need to flatten the curve of this virus before it is blown out of proportion.”

Ranuga said it fitted with old traditions for grave-diggers to wear gloves, but masks remained a problem.

“Masks are not accessible to everybody in rural areas and we are doing this in the best interest of their health and we are hoping that people will comply with this” Ranuga said.

The decision to suspend funerals and educate grave diggers about safety measures was taken by few members of the royal family and traditional leaders at a meeting on Sunday 26 April in Qumbu.

Meanwhile, Nkolokantu Traditional Movement spokesperson Loyiso Nqevu applauded the AmaMpondomise Kingdom decision and he urged local municipalities to intervene and play their role by providing people with machines for digging.

“During wars, many people were killed, lost their lives and there were no funerals allowed, so even now there is no need to panic because we are facing a dangerous enemy, the spiritual war of Covid-19,” Nqevu said.

Nqevu also explained that funerals and night vigils are not part of amaXhosa culture. He raised concerns that the grave diggers might be at higher risk if there is no intervention from government.

He further advised grave diggers to bring their own shovel, mattock (similar to a pickaxe) and gloves when they are called to dig a grave. This is to avoid sharing.

Grave digger Asiphe Vava, 39, from Libode, who has been digging graves since 2009, said no gloves or masks had been provided.

“In Libode, we are not using gloves and masks and we are calling on government to assist us with traditional Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs),” he said.

Eastern Cape Health spokesperson Sizwe Kupelo said the department had noted the positive response.

The decision follows an announcement by the MEC for Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs in the province, Xolile Nqatha, that the Chairperson of the Eastern Cape House of Traditional Leaders Nkosi Mwelo Nonkonyana had been placed on precautionary suspension.

It is alleged that he attended a funeral where there were more than 50 people present.

“The suspension is based on allegations that he contravened Covid-19 regulations. The suspension will remain in force pending the outcome of the investigation on the allegations,” Nqatha’s statement reads.

The deputy chairperson of the House, Nkosi Langa Mavuso, will act in the absence of Nkosi Nonkonyana.

The Executive of the House was consulted about the MEC’s decision and they expressed their objections. 

“The decision taken is in the interest of the chairperson himself, the Provincial House and the entire Eastern Cape government to flatten the curve against Covid-19. I am of the firm view that it is important that as leadership we speak with one voice and avoid contradictory statements as we battle the Covid-19 pandemic,” Nqatha said.

Provincial Health MEC Gomba, has meanwhile described the devastating effect of the funerals on the infection rate in the province.

“The Eastern Cape had one case, then a second case. It took long for us to get a third case and a fourth case. These were just people who travelled. Then we went up to 12. We were already in March.

“Then the funeral came. Suddenly we saw cases from Port Elizabeth. We traced this back to the funeral of a retired nurse in KwaDwesi. Mourners came from all over. After that funeral we started picking up cases. Then we suddenly found someone in East London. She went to test. She was positive. One of the two friends who took her to the doctors also tested positive. She also went to a funeral in Port St Johns. That funeral looked like the one in Port Elizabeth. A lot of people came from the outside. Then the spread started. It started to snowball. We have now managed to contain those who worked at the prison,” Gomba said.

“People are ignoring the lockdown regulations. We are getting additional cases in Port Elizabeth now. Also, we found another funeral in the Chris Hani district. In one home we tested 22 people who all attended the funeral. Some were already ill. Now they are in the intensive care unit at the Frontier Hospital (in Komani). Then we found 24 and then another 14. All linked to funerals.

“The numbers are going up and up and up all the time. Our bigger challenge is that we do not wish our hospitals to be overwhelmed. In a poor province like ours, you will find that people’s health is under constant pressure. Their bodies can’t fight. Now we also have the challenge of food. Hungry people get sick,” Gomba said.

She said their proposal for funerals, where they are continuing, is that only 50 people are allowed to attend.

“We don’t want any cooking. In the villages after a death, people start slaughtering. There is such a culture that villagers support one another. People will come to the home in numbers. They just want to help. They also want to view the body,” Gomba said.

“What we are saying is: Treat each death in the province like that person died of Covid-19. People must not come to the house. The body must go straight from the mortuary to the grave.

“Let’s hope that will help,” she said. 

Spokesperson for the Department of Co-operative Governance and Traditional Affairs, Mamkeli Ngam, said that last week MEC Nqatha had discussed the issue of suspending the initiate season in the Eastern Cape with the House of Traditional Leaders. DM/MC


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