Before now, bereaved families always looked forward to burying their dead for them to rest in peace. This solemn rite appears to have eluded families in states under lockdown as most of the corpses in the mortuaries cannot be buried.
Thus, this is not the best of time for families who have lost their loved ones as the rejection of corpses in mortuaries, which began in Lagos, has swept over other states like a tidal wave.
From various parts of the country, came reports of overflow of corpses in morgues that have been stretched beyond their carrying capacity. The accumulation of corpses in mortuaries began to rise after several state governments imposed restriction of movements and social distancing to prevent the spread of Coronavirus, the pandemic that has practically paralysed economic and social activities around the world, leading to the death thousands of people.
To curb the ravaging spread of the virus, several governments across the globe put their countries on lockdown. Here in Nigeria, state governments in turn forbade the assembly of more than 20 people in one location.
To ensure the new ritual of social distancing, they ordered people to stay-at-home and directed that markets be closed except for sales of basic foodstuff. To make the stay-at-home order effective, all activities that would entail the assembly of people such as religious gatherings, weddings, parties, sporting activities, event centres, offices, businesses, as well as burials and funeral ceremonies were banned.
But then human beings do not choose when they would die except in the case of suicide. As people began to kick the bucket, corpses started to accumulate leading to the situation now confronting mortuaries in some parts of the country, where it is not the practice to bury dead relations within few hours after death. In this report, Sunday Sun reporters give situation report.
Although Abia State is yet to record any confirmed case of the Coronavirus infection, the ban on burials within the period of the lockdown is already having its toll on mortuaries in the state. When Sunday Sunvisited a popular hospital in the Ogbor Hill area of Aba, the chief mortician who gave his name simply as Kenneth said the hospital has not released any corpse to the bereaved families, adding that this has overstretched the capacity of his morgue.
Kenneth, who informed that the holding capacity of the hospital’s morgue is 65, claimed they have put in place improvised mechanism that was meant to contain any excess.
On how the mortuary attendants were ensuring that those killed by Coronavirus were not deposited in the hospital’s morgue, Kenneth said since there was no reported case of the virus in Abia, they had not yet started rejecting corpses. He was quick to add that once a confirmed case is recorded in the state, the mortuary attendants would then ensure that any corpse brought in would only be accepted if certified by a medical doctor as being free from Coronavirus.
At St. John’s Mortuary on the outskirts of Aba, the mortuary attendants said the ban on burials in the state had increased the number of corpses in the morgue.
The carrying capacity of the morgue is 30 bodies. One of the morticians, Ogu, said before the ban, they were used to having a maximum of 10 to 12 corpses at a go, but at present, they have about 25 corpses. He said they are yet to start screening and rejecting corpses of people who died of the Coronavirus.
Ogu opined that the state government should give a window of days for bereaved families to carry the corpses of their relatives for burial, to decongest the morgues some of which are filled to capacity.
When Sunday Sun visited Right Home Mortuary, also located at the outskirts of the capital city, Umuahia, it was the same story.
Maduka Ebi is one of the mortuary attendants at the facility and he told Sunday Sun: “The capacity of our mortuary is 15 corpses and we’ve not had more than seven corpses at a given time. But at present, there are about 13 corpses in the morgue as people have not come to collect the bodies of their dead relations for over a week.”
He said inasmuch as the ban on burial was necessary to avoid the spread of the virus, he appealed to the government to relax the ban as to reduce the number of corpses piling up in the morgues.
However, the Abia State government has insisted that the ban was for the good of the citizens and residents of the state.
The Commissioner for Information, Chief John Okiyi-Kalu, while noting that the government was not happy with certain decisions it took to checkmate the COVID-19 pandemic, said: “Going by the increasing cases of COVID-19 in the country, it will not be expedient to relax the ban on burials and other social gatherings immediately. At least we need two weeks which is the period of incubation of the virus in the human body to be sure that the state is actually free from the pandemic before relaxing the ban.”
He advised mortuary attendants to be discreet and diligent in carrying out their duties to prevent creating another health hazard in the state.
The commissioner called on people of the state to exercise patience as the period of the lockdown, which he said was in their interest, would definitely be over.
The Ebonyi State government, which imposed a stiff lockdown has granted a state-wide waiver for bereaved families to conduct burials of their dead relations.
The waiver, which took effect from Thursday, April 9 will end on April 20. The government, however, clearly stated such burials would be devoid of any form of ceremonies, adding that the ceremonies would be deferred until after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Commissioner for Information and State Orientation, Uchenna Orji, who explained the government’s decision, said that it was the fallout of the consultations it held with stakeholders and leaders of the state.
He said that under the waiver arrangement not more than 20 family members of the bereaved family would be in attendance at the burial and they must each observe social distancing.
With the lockdown in place, Sunday Sun gathered that most mortuaries in the state were already filled to the brim.
When Sunday Sun visited the mortuary unit of the Alex Ekwueme University Teaching Hospital, Abakaliki (AE-FUTHA), it was gathered that the mortuary, which has a capacity of 500 bodies was already filled.
One of the mortuary attendants, who pleaded for anonymity, revealed that the morgue had stopped accepting more corpses because of lack of space in it.
He said: “We have told the management that the mortuary is filled up, and that something should be done. But till now, nothing has been done. What we are doing in the meantime is that we no longer accept corpses from outside the hospital. Even at that this place is already filled up. It is supposed to accommodate 500 corpses, but now it is more than that. What we do is that after freezing one, we bring it down and put another one in the freezing chamber.”
Morticians in Owerri, the Imo State capital, and other parts of the state visited by our reporter are rejecting corpses brought to the mortuaries by bereaved families.
At Saint Anthony’s Specialist Hospital and Mortuary at Ejemekwuru, Oguta Local Government Area of Imo State, the case is the same as some corpses were seen left outside because the morgue had already exceeded its 50 corpses capacity.
A mortician, who did not want his name mentioned, told Sunday Sun: “Normally, we don’t even have up to 50 at a go, because people deposit and later carry the corpses of their relations, but this time it is different since the government banned public occasions and funerals.
“The number of corpses we have at present here is over 80 instead of the normal 50 we accept. The hall cannot contain all off them and that is why we have to lay some of them outside.”
When our correspondent inquired about the safety of the corpses outside, he said: “Nothing can happen to them, they are safe and besides nobody can steal a corpse. We have a cat here that is our security against rodents.”
At another morgue at Nekede, Owerri-West (name withheld), our reporter learnt that the ban has partially affected its business as corpses were hardly being taken away by the bereaved families because of the ban on funerals.
A mortician at the facility revealed that they stopped accepting corpses few days after the ban was announced, but said that if the bereaved family insisted, an extra charge was placed on such corpse.
Meanwhile, the state government has acknowledged the pain of Imolites, but noted that the ban was inevitable because of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country.
The State Commissioner for Information and Strategy, Declan Emelumba, who was reached to comment on the situation said that the though the state was yet to record any case of Coronavirus infection, the governor, Hope Uzodinma had to take extra precaution to make sure the state remained COVID-19 free.
In Kaduna State, Sunday Sun reporter learnt from the Public Relations Officer of St Gerald Catholic Hospital, Kakuri, Kaduna, Mr Ali Sunday, that the management of the facility would not leave any stone unturned in the quest to effectively manage possible fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic in the state.
The PRO when reached on the phone told our reporter: “I will not be able to give you statistics now about the corpses in the morgue here in St. Gerald Catholic Hospital, Kaduna, because I’m not around. What I can tell you now is that, even before the lockdown, St. Gerald as one of the standard private hospitals in the state, has been very conscious of everything we do in line with the best practice.
“Since the outbreak of Coronavirus infection in the country and particularly in the state, we have been working seriously each day to update our safety measures regarding the contagious COVID-19 right from the gate. We have sensitized our staff, including morgue attendants on how to handle any corpse. As you and I know, there is a procedure in handling death arising from COVID-19, which we are conscious of.
“Don’t forget that, due to our location, we are the highest receiver of accident victims here in Kaduna. With respect to unclaimed corpses what we do is mass burial. In accordance with government guidelines, we write to inform the government about it. That usually happens six months and above after nobody comes along to claim the body.
“Let me add that we have not seen any government officials to tell us anything about their plans. But then, we are doing good on our own.”
Chairman, Nigeria Medical Association (NMA), Kaduna, who works with Kaduna State Teaching Hospital, Bareau Dikko, Dr Stephen Akau Kache, said that here is no backlog of corpses in the facility because people have been coming to claim the corpses of their relations despite the lockdown in the state.
On their preparedness to manage corpses resulting from death associated with COVID-19, he said: “We have nothing to worry about here at Barrau Dikko facility. This is because we don’t play with national procedures on the pandemic.
“For example, if anyone dies of the pandemic which we don’t pray for, there is procedure for the burial done in conjunction with relations of the deceased. This means that the corpse would not even get to the morgue.
“All the health workers that will be involved in the burial will be fully kitted in PPE (personal protective clothing) in the same way they dress while attending to the COVID-19 patient while alive. I just spoke with the head of Pathology who confirmed that we do not have a backlog of corpses arising from the lockdown.”
Meanwhile, the Army Acting Public Relations Officer, Colonel Sagir Musa, failed to answer calls made to him and did not respond to SMS sent to his mobile line, requesting him to comment on the state of the morgue at 44 Nigerian Army Reference Hospital, Kaduna.
Fears about the possibility of bodies of patients who died of COVID-19 spreading the deadly disease while in storage in morgues was allayed by the Head of the Department of Pathology at the University of Benin Teaching Hospital (UBTH), Dr Gerald Forae, who spoke to Sunday Sun in Benin City.
He stated that there is an established protocol which prescribed procedure for handling bodies of individuals who died as a result of highly infectious diseases like Lassa Fever and Coronavirus.
“The corpses of COVID-19 or Lassa Fever victims are tagged with a red flag to show that they are highly infectious bodies. We have trained our morticians on how to handle such bodies and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE).
“Once they receive the body, they spray it with hypochloric acid and put it in a proof plastic body bag”, adding that the body is then embalmed before it is deposited into an apartment created for infectious bodies in the morgue of UBTH, which has capacity for 42 bodies.
Dr Forae explained that when it is time to bury such bodies, officials of the Edo State Ministry of Health and their counterparts from the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) would be contacted to be involved in the interment.
He further explained that a compartment of the morgue could take two bodies and its capacity could stretch to over 100 bodies, adding that other non-infectious bodies are kept in a chemical morgue.
“We take all bodies, we just sterilize and fumigate them,” Dr Forae said.
At the Edo State-owned Central Hospital, along Sapele Road, Benin City, a source said the state has many mortuaries where dead bodies could be kept.
He named the other government hospitals that have mortuaries as Stella Obasanjo Hospital and Irrua Specialist Hospital. The source also said besides the government hospitals that have mortuaries, some private hospitals and individuals also have morgues.
The source, however, declined to disclose the capacity of the various state government owned mortuaries as our reporter who visited the Central Hospital was told to apply in writing to the Medical Director of the hospital, to obtain the information.
As for those whose deaths might be as result of the dreaded Coronavirus, the source said that such bodies belong to the government and they might not be placed in the morgues meant for other bodies.
At press time, Edo State Commissioner for Health, Dr Patrick Okundia, was yet to react to an enquiry on the matter sent to his mobile phone.
There has been uneasy calm in major mortuaries in Plateau State since a lockdown was declared to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the state.
Although the state has not recorded any case, mortuary attendants interrogate people who come to deposit corpses in the morgue, to ascertain the cause of death before accepting such corpses. They also seek to find out how soon the corpse would be taken away for burial.
From visits made to major mortuaries in Jos, the state capital, Sunday Sun reporter observed that there was high traffic at most of them ahead of the lockdown on Thursday.
At the Air Force Hospital, Jos, more than three corpses were carried away in the early hours. The mortuary refused to allow the usual practice of moving a corpse out of the hospital in a convoy.
No family members were allowed to go into the mortuary, which has a capacity for 25 corpses. Relations of the deceased and sympathizers were urged to stay outside the hospital premises to wait for the corpses to be brought out in coffins.
At the Plateau Specialist Hospital, Jos, mortuary, which has holding capacity of 18 corpses only 16 corpses were being held as at the time of filing this report.
John, a mortuary attendant, said no corpse had yet been rejected as no corpse had been associated with death that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We usually find out what led to the death of an individual and where the corpse came from before accepting it for deposit in the morgue. We do not also allow people crowd around the mortuary, to observe social distancing,” John said.
The Chief Medical Director of the Plateau Specialist Hospital, Jos, Dr. Philemon Golwa, reassured the public, saying: “We will be working during the lockdown; people are still taking the corpses of their late relations for burial, to create more space.”
The Chief Medical Director of Jos University Teaching Hospital (JUTH), Dr. Edmond Banwat, who spoke with Sunday Sun on the situation of the tertiary hospitals morgue said: “We have about 48 cabinets in the permanent site and about five at the old site of JUTH, with the state-of-the-art equipment for preserving and handling corpses.”
He, however, could not tell the number of corpses held in the morgue as at the time of filing the report. The mortuary attendant said he and his colleagues were taking all necessary steps to protect themselves in the course of discharging their duties.
In Taraba State in the Northeast part of the country morgues do not feel the pressure which mortuaries in the southern part of the country are experiencing. The Taraba State Commissioner of Health, Dr Innocent Vakkai, told Sunday Sun that the state’s morgues were still operating at normal capacity without challenges.
The commissioner said that no corpses were being rejected as the state had not recorded any confirmed case of COVID-19; hence the morgues were still open for operation without interruption.
In the same vein, the Chief Medical Director of Specialist Hospital, Jalingo, Dr Alexander Maiangwa, said morticians at the morgue had no reason to be bothered about COVID-19 in the course of carrying out their duties of preserving and sustaining the state of the corpses deposited at the mortuary.
Maiangwa said that most of the corpses in the morgue were bodies of patients who died in the hospital, stating only few bodies were accepted from outside the health facility, mostly accident victims and very few of those whose were due to other illnesses.
Notwithstanding this, he said that measures had been put in place to ensure that no health worker in the state is exposed to unnecessary and avoidable risk.
Right from the day, an Italian man was diagnosed as the COVID-19 index case in Lagos, the Ekiti State government took the proactive step of establishing the Ekiti Task Force on COVID-19, and was the indeed the second state to do so in the country after Lagos.
Following in the footsteps of the Ekiti State government, Head of Anatomic Pathology at Ekiti State University Teaching Hospital (EKSUTH), Ado-Ekiti, Dr Omonisi Abidemi, said the tertiary hospital also set up its own COVID-19 task force in the hospital, and adopted local policy suitable for the proper management of the mortuary within the teaching hospital, in line with international best practices for the handling of corpses resulting from death associated COVID-19.
“We agreed to thoroughly screen bodies before admission in the mortuary, particularly bodies from outside. In this regard, the mortuary attendant has no right to admit any corpse without the permission of a pathologist. The Head of Department or the pathologist must be involved in any admission process in the mortuary,” he said.
Abidemi told Sunday Sun that the mortuary can conveniently accommodate up to 60 bodies at a stretch because of the additional facility added.
In the wake of COVID-19, he said the pandemic had actually reduced the number of patients visiting the hospital, adding that the lockdown further reduced patronage.
“On the average, we do have between 40 to 50 bodies, and occasionally when we have maximum capacity, we refer the bodies to other mortuaries in the town because the size of the mortuary is small compared to the teaching hospital and the general public that we serve. Also, being a government mortuary, sometimes we accept corpses from the police, especially bodies that were found on the roads, that is why the mortuary is overwhelmed,” he said.
At Orire mortuary, which is part of Orire Hospital Complex, which is a private facility established by the current chairman of Ekiti State Hospitals Management Board, Dr Andrew Adebayo Orire, Sunday Sun learnt that the mortuary has been in operation since 1983 and is one of the most well kept mortuaries in the country.
“It has capacity for 24 corpses at a stretch and two private rooms for corpses that will not be kept in the cages of the slot compactment, so that they will look as if they are sleeping on a bed in their room, with everything intact and the necessary chemical preservations done on them, so, it has holding capacity of 26 corpses in all.
As at the time Sunday Sun reporter visited the facility, four corpses were at the morgue.
He said that the piling up of corpses at this period of lockdown is very dangerous, stressing, “after test and postmortem, corpses should be disposed off as fast as possible and those who have had contacts with the corpses should be disinfected. Disinfect the corpses too and dispose them off whichever way as soon as possible.”
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Anambra State government also banned burials and funerals like some other states. This naturally put pressure on morgues like Heaven’s Gate Mortuary, which is part of Ikedife Hospital, Nnewi, Anambra State.
The Chief Mortician, Mr Michael Aneke, who spoke with Sunday Sun, explained that the morgue has taken steps to ensure the safety of its staff while rendering vital service. “If any corpse is brought to us here for preservation, we must know the particulars of the dead person, where he or she comes from, what killed the person, whether it was accident or natural death, the type of sickness or illness or disease that killed the person. We must know all these before we touch the corpse. Even if we go to a hospital to take delivery of a corpse before this Coronavirus pandemic period, we must know all these details about the deceased before we commence work.
“We also get the address and phone number of the next of kin of the deceased. We do all these things so that we will know how we should prepare ourselves before commencing preservation. We will know what killed the deceased and there must be a written document from a doctor where the corpse was brought from with the hospital’s letterhead explaining what killed the deceased before we can touch the corpse. We don’t accept corpses without these protocols being followed.
“Till date no victim of Coronavirus has been brought to us for preservation. Anyway, since the pandemic started the rate at which people were bringing corpses here has dropped. It has drastically dropped. We have 10 private rooms and a viewing room. Those private rooms are where deceased monarchs, other traditional rulers and dignitaries whose relations would not like their bodies to be kept with commoners are kept. Each private room is meant for one person.
“Then we have a general storage room where other corpses can be kept. The general storage room can contain up to 50 or 60 corpses. What the viewing room means is that if people come here to claim a corpse, the people need not see another corpse outside the particular corpse they came for. We have a stretcher where the corpse is placed and brought to the viewing room so that the person or people who come for the corpse can see it.”
In Abeokuta, activities at the mortuary of a government hospital (name withheld) have slowed down, due probably to the lockdown in the state. An official in the morgue, who spoke with Sunday Sun on condition of anonymity, said that the mortuary is a bit free of the bustle previously associated with it
He explained that due to the lockdown, families whose relations died while being treated at the hospital have resorted to burying the deceased relations immediately, instead of depositing the corpses at the mortuary.
The official further said that though no person had yet died in the state from Coronavirus complications, the government had instructed the officials of the hospital on what to do, in the event of any patient dying as a result of COVID-19.
On the holding capacity of the mortuary, the official said the morgue was originally designed to hold up to 50 corpses conveniently, but due to the number of unclaimed corpses, the facility, sometimes may hold around 70 corpses at a go.
The ban on public gatherings and restrictions on movement imposed by the Rivers State government as a measure to curb the spread of Coronavirus, the causative agent of the COVID-19 pandemic ravaging the world, has not stopped people from dying in the state. Mortuary attendants in the state are still receiving corpses for embalmment and storage from bereaved families.
In Port Harcourt, the Rivers State capital, Sunday Sun investigation revealed that the ban on public gatherings, and by extension, burial ceremonies, has prevented families from coming forward to carry away corpses of their late relations previously deposited at the morgues.
A female manager (name withheld) of a mortuary located in Ozuoba, in Obio/Akpor Local Government Area of the state, told Sunday Sun that the facility gives five days grace after payment of the initial embalmment fee, before charging additional money per day, weekly, monthly as the case may be, to sustain the corpse in good state.
She disclosed that they have also stepped up their operational conditions before receiving corpses from their relatives. In this regard, the mortuary attendants ask the bereaved family to state the cause of death and the medical report.