Elizabeth Ohene writes: Death in the time of COVID-19

Of all the things that we are having to adjust to, it is probably the ban on funerals that strikes hardest at the Ghanaian way of life.

Thus far, late Monday night as I sit down to write, the known statistics on the coronavirus state of affairs in Ghana, five people had died from COVID-19.

We are not yet measuring this crisis by how many people have been taken ill, or are in hospital or have died.

Italian angle

I suspect that the Italian angle of this worldwide story has struck a chord particularly in Ghana not because of the numbers that have died there, but because of the manner of dealing with the dead.

Eight hundred, one thousand people dying in a day, and the photos of coffins laid out in the Italian city of Bergamo especially have kept all of us in dread of what might happen in our country.

When someone is sick with COVID-19, and is on admission in hospital, you cannot visit; it could be your child, your parent, your grandparent, your spouse, your friend, your pastor, your chief, your sibling, your neighbour, the protocols do not allow that you visit.

COVID-19 is so contagious, you are not allowed to visit when someone has been diagnosed with the condition and is on admission. The sick person is in the hands solely of the medical people.

It is not really a problem of how well equipped and resourced a medical establishment might be; when you are sick, you want your loved ones around you.

The doctors themselves recommend that known and loved faces and voices aid recovery and that is why there are visiting times for people in hospitals.

The Italian nurses are telling us the sick people cannot have family and friends around them and they are dying alone. Then, the really intolerable part, from a Ghanaian perspective, is that not only are they dying alone, they are being buried alone.

Once dead, the family is not allowed even to view the body and the burial is done by the state, without the presence of family and friends.

Many people in Ghana would be touched by a small detail which says if your loved one dies of COVID-19 in Italy, he is buried in the hospital gown in which he died. If you brought one of his favourite clothes or bought a new suit, it would be draped over the body and not worn.

I am not sure which bit we would find more difficult to cope with, not being able to visit while in hospital, not being by the side of the loved one at the moment of death, not seeing the body before being buried, or not being able to organise a funeral.

I dare not try to find out what has happened to the five that have died from COVID-19 in this country; I suspect the one that was a Moslem, has been buried and the bodies of the other four are probably lying in morgues. Would the protocols on how to treat those who die from COVID-19 be different for us?

Ban on funerals

For most Ghanaians, I suspect it is the ban on funerals that would be the most difficult thing to deal with during this crisis. The hope of course is that not many people will die of this virus, but the fear of spreading the virus means we cannot have funerals for people who have died from other things.

You cannot have a funeral without crowds, you cannot have a funeral without shaking hands and you cannot practise social distancing at a funeral.

When the announcements were made detailing the new protocols on social interactions, the ban was on funerals, but not on burials. It was said we could have private burials, that is, we could bury the dead for as long as the crowd did not go beyond the recommended 25 people.

I notice that many of the funerals that had been scheduled long ago to be taking place in March, have simply been postponed to May and beyond.

People are simply postponing all the activities concerning the deaths that are occurring during this period. It is obvious that the Ghanaian mind is unable to take in the concept of not having funerals. The private burials are not taking place.

A family in Accra decided to bury quietly last weekend, someone who had died back in November and reschedule the funeral for later in the year, when hopefully, things would have calmed down.

One part of the family, who could not bear the thought of their loved one being buried without fanfare, went and bribed the mortuary officials and when the rest of the family came to take the body, as planned, for the burial, they were told the body could not be found.

A report was made to the police by those family members not in the conspiracy about a missing body, which of course was not missing.

The mortuary officials not in the conspiracy found out what had happened and confronted the bribe givers. The end of this particular story does not bear repeating, it is enough to say the body remains in the morgue.

I have seen announcements stating that since families cannot sit down to receive sympathisers who would call, one-week funeral rites were being postponed along with all the other ceremonies that go with funerals.

Unusual times

At this rate, the mortuaries are going to be full quite soon and lead to a new and different set of problems. I am not advocating a change in our attitudes towards funerals, I have written enough on that subject and I acknowledge I am in a small minority.

We seem to agree we are in unusual times and it is time to demonstrate this in our attitudes. We are all hoping that we can halt the spread of the virus and the deaths from COVID-19 would not mount in our country.

But the experience from other parts of the world would show we must be ready to deal with an increase in the figures.

The health authorities must announce clear guidelines on what to do with the bodies of people who die from the disease.

The authorities might need to get into areas regarded as sacred and begin putting limits on how long we can keep dead bodies in morgues.

I can’t tell on what basis people are postponing burials, funerals and one-week rites to May, June, July or beyond. I have no idea why they think this virus will disappear in a few weeks and we can go back to our merry ways in May, June, July and beyond.

Our current reality is that we have a pandemic and we should behave as such in all ways.

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