Morgue strife surfaces amid cadaver backlog

Gauteng’s provincial health department on Tuesday has downplayed a Mail & Guardian investigation revealing a backlog in pauper’s burials at Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg.

But the Democratic Alliance and hospital employees say the the mortuary is plagued by management issues.

A number of corpses have been awaiting burial in the hospital’s mortuary for several months—some as far back as August.

Many of the corpses exhibited advanced stages of decomposition and freezer burn, while others were bloated and leaking bodily fluids and exuding a sharp stench.

In response to questions posed by the M&G, department spokesperson Simon Zwane said the department is aware of the problem.

“We are aware of unclaimed bodies at the hospital. They relate mainly to babies that have not been claimed by their parents.
The hospital has a responsibility to trace the next of kin before deciding what to do with the bodies. Usually hospitals are allowed three months to trace relatives before deciding on burying the bodies as paupers,” Zwane said via SMS.

The response is in conflict with documents in possession of the M&G, proving that adult cadavers are among those await interment at the hospital’s mortuary.

‘Highly irregular’
According to morgue employees, most of the corpses held in the morgue were awaiting pauper’s funerals—which are the responsibility of the state if indigent people cannot be buried by their families.

In cases where families cannot afford a funeral, an application must be made to a municipality for an indigent burial.

While there is no stipulated, regulatory time frame in which bodies must be removed from hospital morgues for indigent or pauper’s burials, the M&G spoke to two separate medical academics who described the period the corpses had been kept at the morgue as “highly irregular”.

“Each municipality must have a contract with an undertaker who will perform indigent and pauper burials after a period of harbouring the body. Often you’ll find that procedures have been flouted and bodies are left to wait, but it’s not necessarily all due to negligence,” said one of the academics, who preferred to remain anonymous.

Management issue
The Democratic Alliance’s leader in Gauteng, Jack Bloom, described the situation as a “management issue gone horribly wrong”

“This is an appalling situation. At a hospital mortuary, bodies should be kept for no longer than a few days. The change of management at this mortuary has led to this issue and it should be dealt with immediately,” he told the M&G.

Mortuary workers told the M&G that conditions at the morgue have deteriorated since the appointment of Toko Pitsoane as mortuary manager in July.

“We complained but were told by morgue management to draft a report. We did that and nothing happened. Why must we work like this?” said the mortuary employee.

Pitsoane would not respond to questions when called by the M&G, instead referring all queries to the national department of health.

“I won’t talk to you over the phone and I can’t comment,” Pitsoane said before ending the call.

Morgue employees have also complained of a lack of protective gear such as masks and gloves when dealing with corpses.

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, all people working in mortuaries must have access to gloves and surgical masks.

Those working in close proximity to corpses are at risk of contracting infectious diseases such as hepatitis and tuberculosis, unless correct precautions are taken with protective gear.

Hospital management would not comment on the allegations and referred all queries to the provincial health department, who did not respond to questions on this matter.

Nickolaus Bauer

Nickolaus Bauer

Nickolaus Bauer is the Mail & Guardian's jack of all trades news reporter that chases down stories ranging from politics and sports to big business and social justice. Armed with an iPad, SLR camera, camcorder and dictaphone, he aims to fight ignorance and pessimism through written words, photographs and videos. He believes South Africa could be the greatest country in the world if only her citizens would give her a chance to flourish instead of dwell on the negativity. When he's not begging his sub-editors for an extra twenty minutes after deadline, he's also known to dabble in the occasional poignant column that will leave you mulling around in the depths of your psyche. The quintessential workaholic, you can also catch him doing sports on the weekday breakfast show on SAfm and presenting the SAfm Sports Special over the weekend. Read more from Nickolaus Bauer

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