Funeral businesses’ finances hit hard by rapid rise in Covid-19 deaths
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Durban - The rapid rise of Covid-19 related deaths is pushing several burial service businesses into a state of bankruptcy.
An update from the health department showed 167 people died from Covid-19 in KwaZulu-Natal this past weekend alone. At least 5 241 people have died in KZN since the outbreak early last year.
“We have reached a state where we have literally no money at all to provide the service promised to our clients,” said a frustrated Mabongi Hlongwa, of Ithembalethu funeral services, which caters mainly for clients in rural eThekwini and the South Coast.
“The numbers of clients in desperate need of our services have increased exponentially. When we entered into this kind of business, we never expected that one day, we would be out of financial reserves to keep up with the numbers of bodies that need burying.
“I have my back to the wall now. We owe people money, because we are failing to provide the service. We can’t even give people cash which they deserve in terms of the contract. A person tells you, ‘I have been meeting my premium obligations each month for the whole year without fail, now keep your end’. What do I do?”, she asked.
“As we speak, I have five bodies lying in the mortuary waiting to be buried. Each weekend, I am having to provide a service to no less than five clients, who have lost loved ones to this virus. I can’t cope really,” Hlongwa said.
Nonhlanhla Myeza, head of Isibani funeral services, the bulk of whose clientele is in the rural parts of the King Cetshwayo municipal district, said she would soon go out of business, if deaths continued at the current rapid rate.
“We don’t even have coffins. If a batch of coffins arrives, there is a scramble to get them. And their prices have shot up, almost double the prices before the second wave.”
She said as frontline funeral service workers, they were also in danger of getting infected.
“Although none of my employees has been infected, I have been sick from the virus myself. I almost died. We try to protect ourselves, following the regulations and guidelines provided. But the personal protective equipment (PPE) is very expensive. It is also one area that is putting our company and other small scale service providers in the red. We also have to provide (PPE) for immediate family members. These things are expensive. It’s not even a struggle now. It has become impossible to provide the service, period,” Myeza said.
“Remember that when we developed this business, the premiums were based on a normal situation of death and a funeral. We never expected to operate under the present pressures of an exponential number of deaths in a short space of time, rising coffin prices and PPE gear requirements. It is really undoable.”
She said they were not getting any support from government.
“The only thing we are getting from the government is regulations to operate in a safe environment by providing masks, sanitisers and PPE.”
Nomfundo Mcoyi, chief executive of Icebolethu funerals, said the second wave had exerted unprecedented pressure on their operations, with the most challenging area being the fleet department.
She said the number of body collections had risen, which had caused bereaved families to wait longer than usual.
“We have seen increased complaints due to increased waiting periods. Another strained facility has been mortuaries which have been running out of space.”
Mcoyi said the company was faced with escalating costs, as they have had to purchase more than 13 vehicles to meet client expectations.
“It has been quite expensive to deal with Covid-19 as there is a lot of PPE required. New procedures require segmenting mortuaries between Covid-19 deaths and other causes.”
Social Development spokesperson Mhlaba Memela said it was not within the scope of the department to provide support to funeral parlours.
“We only assist families assessed to be living in abject poverty, providing them with food parcels under the special relief of distress programme.”
Economic Development spokesperson Bheki Mbanjwa said no special programme was in place to support funeral parlours amid the pressures of the pandemic.