Funerals still super-spreaders

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By Eunice Masunungure

THE recent announcement of the lifting of lockdown measures by President Emmerson Mnangagwa does not mean doing away with the COVID-19 protocols.

Therefore, it is imperative to revise some norms, social and cultural beliefs that promote the spread of COVID-19, particularly those observed during funeral gatherings in Zimbabwe.      

Various norms, customs and beliefs practised at funerals are super-spreaders of the virus. 

I attended several funerals during the period when COVID-19 cases spiked and realised how rigid we are as a people despite the dangers posed by COVID-19.

People would hug and cry on each other’s shoulders in solidarity, forgetting the necessary guidelines to be observed in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.

I found this practice rampant even at the peak of the virus.

It must be noted that people still shake hands at funerals.

In Africa, and Zimbabwe in particular, a firm handshake accompanied with eye contact means a lot, including oneness and mutual understanding.

This culturally ingrained practice in our traditional societies ought to change, considering that hands are potential carriers of the virus and keeping hands to oneself is protecting others.

After refusing to shake hands at a funeral in Shamva, I was rebuked for disrespecting and ‘carrying chirungu from the city to the village’.

“This is pride, quite rude and disrespectful, are you not embarrassed?” asked one mourner.

This remark shows there are deep-rooted cultural practices in our communities that defy all the preventive measures.

To refrain from physical contact, there is need for willpower because handshakes, hugs and close proximity are deeply rooted and important cultural practices.

There is need to defy shaking of hands during this pandemic.

Ezedike, E. O. (2009:455) in African Culture and the African Personality: From Footmarks to Landmarks on African Philosophy notes that: “African culture is the sum total of shared attitudinal inclinations and capabilities, art, beliefs, moral codes.”

These norms, attitudes, beliefs and moral codes can be changed by the people themselves.

It is not the responsibility of the elite because, for instance, despite the discouragement to transport remains of the deceased across towns to curb the spike of COVID-19 in the second week of January 2021, Zimbabweans are still found wanting in terms of following the WHO guidelines on COVID-19.

Many Zimbabweans who are used to huddling together to mourn throw caution to the wind during funerals or times of bereavement.

In some communities, like Chipinge, Nyanga and Shamva where I attended funerals, dancing and singing throughout the night was the norm.

Women would be up all night long during the wake, in a hut ventilated only by a door and tiny windows.

The night vigil, which is meant to comfort and encourage the bereaved is very involving and defies social distancing.

In Chipinge, I witnessed a body that was swaddled in a plastic in line with COVID-19 restrictions being unwrapped on arrival at the village because the relatives were arguing there was no way the corpse was to be buried without being washed and dressed. 

The argument was, there is need to respect the dead, irrespective of whether the corpse is already producing a stench. 

They ended up using perfumes because the body was already decomposing then. 

Seeing elders of my clan smearing some oils on Sekuru Museve’s (not his real name) dead body in an expensive suit made me wonder how we have not improved our cultural ways in line with COVID-19 regulations. 

The saddest thing is that such practices do not really benefit the corpse, but only massages the ego of those doing it.

Actually, it exposes the people in attendance to various possible infections and contamination.

Even if it is practised on a body declared by health experts as not infectious, such a process does not promote safety from spreading of diseases.

Moreover, the immediate family of the deceased is expected to stay together and that means bringing together all those who might have travelled from distant places for the funeral.

Both at home and during burial at the grave side, the proximity promotes the spread of COVID-19.

Another practice that promotes the spread of COVID-19 is that, after burial, people are invited to the deceased’s home to eat.

People wash their hands and queue for the meal, but not observing social distancing.

Indeed, being restricted only does not work if people are not careful to change habits and ways of doing things that promote the spread of COVID-19.

Our practices can be considered as “…continuous because cultural patterns transcend years, reappearing in successive generations…,” as argued by Idang Gabriel (2015) in African Culture and Values.

It is therefore imperative for Zimbabweans to discard things that do not add value to our lives.

The totality of our being ought to be scrutinised beyond Government enforced restrictions to promote an African community that is healthy.

While some argue COVID-19 came to destroy African understanding of coherence of life, some aspects of the African culture need to be checked and modified so that societies do not run a danger of spreading the disease.

Washing hands regularly, maintaining social distancing, avoiding shaking hands and staying at home must be considered valid now and in future.

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