Body bags in high demand as SA's Covid death toll mounts

One medical supplier says there's been a 450% increase in body bag sales

13 August 2020 - 18:19
Forensic pathology officers at a facility in Germiston. Covid deaths have been a boon for manufacturers of body bags.
Forensic pathology officers at a facility in Germiston. Covid deaths have been a boon for manufacturers of body bags.
Image: Jackie Clausen

As SA continues counting its dead as Covid-19 spreads through the country, body bags are fast becoming a crucial part in the fight against the coronavirus.

It is essential, the health department told TimesLIVE, that bodies are buried inside a body bag — even if the mortal remains are in a coffin. And this has been a boon for companies who make the macabre products.

Officially, by Wednesday night, there had been 11,010 Covid-19 related deaths. But the SA Medical Research Council (SAMRC) said in a report on Wednesday that there had been 33,478 “excess deaths” between May 6 and August 4 compared to figures from a year ago.

Dr Lawrence Konyana from the National Funeral Directors Association said initial lockdown regulations required three body bags for one body. This number was then reduced to two bags, and then to one.

“But most of us are still using two, the top one being clear so that the family can view the body,” he said.

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National health department spokesperson Popo Maja said it was a requirement to place all bodies in a body bag, even if the body was placed in a coffin before burial. But he said only one body bag was necessary.

“It’s part of infection control — it’s absolutely necessary,” he said.

Anton Gillis, CEO of Ysterplaat Medical Supplies (YMS), said they had seen a 450% increase in sales of body bags when compared to a year ago. He said the demand come from funeral homes, which were wrapping the bodies in up to three body bags at a time to prevent the spread of the virus.

He said sales to companies exporting body bags into Ghana and Mozambique had also increased.

“We have also sold an inordinate amount of bags to large mines,” he said, but would not say which companies he sold to.

Similarly, MedQ medical suppliers said they had an increasing number of queries about the costs of their body bags. Without elaborating further, the company said: “We assume it is to supply some tender or hospital requirements.”

Power Plastics Industrial salesperson Roger McCallum said the company received an order of body bags from a private hospital institution at the beginning of lockdown. Now they get between 10 and 20 calls a day for body bags — “many with much the same specification — but there had been no orders from the enquiries

“These must be government tenders and they are certainly not going to existing manufacturing businesses. Either the state has not ordered, or these orders have been made by other suppliers. But we certainly have not seen any of them,” he said.

Nandha Naidu, from Endomed Medical and Surgical Supplies, said the company had seen a 30% rise in quantities ordered when compared to last year. He said most of the sales went directly to medical depots in different provinces, to hospitals and to other medical wholesalers. He did not elaborate on who the customers were.

Gravedigger Mokoena Lukama, 39, has worked at the Muslim section of the West Park cemetery in Johannesburg for 21 years.

In the beginning, it took time for him to feel comfortable around the dead, he said. Before he worked as a gravedigger, he thought all burials included a coffin. He soon learnt that Muslim burials usually did not. Now he’s used to seeing a body enshrouded in white cotton or linen.

But since the coronavirus swept through SA, even that has changed. “It’s different now, even if the body [did not die from Covid-19] it is sealed in several [body bags] and brought in a box.”

Undertakers have also assured the public that there is no shortage when it comes to storing the dead.

Konyana said that though the 500-plus members of the organisation were busy, especially in Gauteng, he was not concerned about any of the provinces running out of space to store the dead before burial.

He said the industry would be able to cope with the increasing number of deaths, provided other parties played their part. The biggest potential snag is with home affairs taking a long time to process death certificates. Some municipalities also still require two days to book a grave site. Families needed to understand that burials had to be done as soon as possible to help with backlogs, he added.

Mabore Sefara, Avbob Mutual Assurance Society spokesperson, said: “We believe the industry has capacity to deal with increased deaths. The industry normally deals with about 9,000 deaths per week, so the additional demand for services should not be an issue.”

Sefara added that the company had prepared for an influx of bodies by converting shipping containers into mobile mortuaries, which were being distributed to hotspots in Gauteng, the Eastern Cape and the Western Cape.

Meanwhile, Western Cape health department spokesperson Mark van der Heever said Cape Town’s “mass-fatality temporary facility” — a makeshift morgue at the Tygerberg Hospital with the capacity to hold 770 bodies — was complete and started admitting bodies on July 10.

So far nine bodies were stored in the centre, which consists of 12 containers connected to three-phase power. Three bodies are currently still at the facility.

Van der Heever said the facility was safe storage if undertakers could not manage.

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