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A unified response to Covid-19 requires more of us

Since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, South Africans have been praised for their unified response to the crisis. It’s easy to bask in this recognition and celebrate it in the social media, but unity goes deeper than that.

Nkateko Mabindisa

In a recent television interview, I made reference to some of the funeral rituals practiced in the communities we serve in Soweto and southern Johannesburg and, sadly, this was ridiculed in the social media. We need to do better. If we are to be unified in the face of this crisis, we need to make the effort to understand how it is impacting on others.  

The rites and rituals practiced after the death of a loved one vary widely, even within a single metro. In some communities, for instance, it is still common for family members to personally prepare the deceased for burial. This includes viewing and sitting with the body, either at home or at the funeral parlour, as well as various traditional and religious rites that involve touch. In some ways, this is similar to the practice of sitting Shiva in the Jewish community.

On the day before the funeral, close relatives wash and prepare the body for burial, which is regarded as a gesture of care and respect. The deceased is then taken back to the family home, where loved ones can bid a final farewell. This again involves touching the body in some way or even removing it from the coffin.

As strict protocols governing mourning, funerals and burials have been put into place since the national lockdown was implemented on 27 March, all of this important and meaningful contact with deceased loved ones is prohibited. This is a source of distress for bereaved families and friends, who are not permitted to perform rituals that have personal and cultural significance for them.

As a caring funeral services provider, we’ve tried to find a way to retain the meaning of these rituals while still adhering strictly to all Covid-19 prohibitions.

A solution we’ve found works well is for the funeral procession to pass by the deceased person’s house so that family and friends can still feel the person has had the opportunity to be buried from home, so to speak. We nevertheless have to communicate to the bereaved that they are not permitted to have any contact with the body, which is what I was trying to do in the interview.

If we are to be unified as a nation in the face of this crisis, we need to make the effort to understand the differences in social and cultural practices between communities. We need to do more than congratulating ourselves in the social media and try to understand what others are going through at a time when traditional practices are restricted by lockdown regulations.

Unity is more than just a concept or a meme; it’s a lived reality that requires us to try to understand one another and to have empathy for one another’s experiences.