Corpse crisis at mortuary

The bodies are piling up at the Phoenix mortuary where workers have been suspended allegedly for not wanting to work without protective gear. Picture: Supplied

The bodies are piling up at the Phoenix mortuary where workers have been suspended allegedly for not wanting to work without protective gear. Picture: Supplied

Published Jul 30, 2022


Durban - Political parties have demanded a full investigation into the Phoenix mortuary where dozens of smelling corpses have been piling up, some since the violence that engulfed KwaZulu-Natal and parts of Gauteng last year.

Some of the bodies have been there since floods washed through the province earlier this year, leaving nearly 500 dead.

When approached for comment, the head of the provincial portfolio committee on health, Nomatiti Majola, claimed to be unaware of the problems.

However, the KZN Department of Health acknowledged numerous challenges at the medico-legal mortuary.

DA provincial health spokesman Dr Rishigen Viranna said the nationwide backlog in DNA and forensic services had come back to haunt the government after grisly details of the state of the mortuary emerged.

“Until recently there was a backlog of 18 000 DNA samples in the police, which affected the state mortuaries,” he said.

The crisis came to light when two members of the National Health and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) were suspended from the mortuary last week for refusing to work without protective equipment.

Viranna said the mortuary was poorly managed and there was insufficient staff to do autopsies which was exacerbated by the moratorium on staff appointments which had been in place since 2019.

He said the Phoenix mortuary crisis had been raised with the provincial health department several times but it was never dealt with and the province refused to use private laboratories to resolve their problems.

He accused the department of being more concerned with politics than service.

“They said there were no funds, yet the auditor-general found that the department had an irregular expenditure of R2bn in the last financial year. The money was spent on security and pharmaceutical tenders,” he said.

Phoenix mortuary staff say they have insufficient vehicles and those available are in a state of disrepair. Picture: Supplied

Viranna said: “These aren't just bodies, these are people’s family members who were dearly loved. It is completely cruel and inhumane that the department has not done something about the backlog. It shows a complete lack of respect, care and compassion.

“These are unnatural deaths. Some of them are from crimes like murder. This is a completely avoidable situation. The department was warned almost two years ago.”

The DA’s Phoenix constituency head Bradley Singh said the stench in the area was unbearable. Residents who lived across the road from the mortuary were too scared to open their doors and windows because of the “sickening” smell.

Singh, who is also a member of the provincial legislature, said when he went to the parking area of the mortuary recently “the smell was so, so bad, yoh, I felt miserable the whole day.

“The fridges can’t handle any more bodies and there are no chemicals to clean the mortuary,” he said.

Singh said last month residents held a protest there hoping it would speed up the release of their relatives’ bodies, but nothing came of it.

IFP councillor Jonathan Annipen said mortuary staff were expected to work under unhygienic and inhumane conditions and even though they had complained to management, the matter was ignored.

“It is obvious that this kind of situation does not occur overnight and a full scale inquiry must be launched to determine who neglected to maintain this facility because it is a clear dereliction of duty,” he said.

Annipen said a reported shortage of vehicles was also not a new phenomenon.

“Not so long ago the body of a deceased young man was left strewn on the M21 for several hours after he was knocked down. There were no vehicles available to assist with the retrieval of the remains,” he said.

He said it was inconceivable that the Department of Health would allow this type of scenario to go on for such a long period of time.

“Daily you will notice that SAPS and metro police are expected to barricade areas where pedestrians are knocked down because the department has failed to properly make resources available,” said Annipen.

Nehawu provincial secretary Ayanda Zulu said the two suspended workers were targeted for not wanting to work in an unsafe environment.

“Since we complained they started cleaning the mortuary and we think some bodies were taken to the Gale Street mortuary which was closed two years ago because nothing was functioning there,” said Zulu.

He said their members had reported that the drains in the Phoenix mortuary were blocked, that it was filled to capacity and corpses were laid on the floor, flies were all over the place, there were not enough vehicles and they had no gloves and masks or other protective gear and the place stank.

Zulu said they would make a submission to the Health MEC on the matter next Friday and called for more mortuaries to be built.

KwaZulu-Natal Department of Health spokesperson Ntokozo Maphisa said they were aware of numerous challenges.

“We nevertheless wish to state categorically that the mortuary is not full,” he said.

Maphisa said the field of forensic science suffered from numerous historical resource constraints and the department was not entirely responsible for the completion of all the autopsies at its medico-legal mortuaries.

“Generally, autopsies tend to differ in their nature and scope, depending on the circumstances under which a person has died, and thus require different kinds of intervention. While some autopsies may be completed with relative ease and released for burial, others require various forms of investigation which are outside the control of the department,” Maphisa said.

He said there was an accumulation of bodies in which investigations had to be finalised by the police’s forensic science laboratory.

He also acknowledged that the situation was exacerbated by fatalities from the rioting in July last year, as well as the recent floods.

Maphisa said earlier this week that a high-level team of officials conducted a walkabout at the mortuary where numerous resolutions were made.

“These include sourcing staff internally to assist with administrative and maintenance duties at the facility. The shortage of medically-trained officers to perform autopsies (doctors, forensic officers and pathologists) was also identified and is receiving attention,” he said.

The Independent on Saturday