Innovation and compassion, key to Covid-19 success
For AVBOB, surviving a pandemic is not a new national crisis, albeit challenging. South Africa’s leading and largest funeral service and mutual assurance society, with more than 2.3 million policyholders and some 7 million lives insured, has been serving its customers for more than 100 years through trying times.
Ensuring that AVBOB’s clients were able to financially survive the loss of their loved ones was critical for the company. It’s been over a year since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in South Africa, and more than 50 000 lives – according to government figures – have since been lost to the pandemic. Lockdowns and subsequent efforts to manage the unfolding impact on businesses, locally and globally, have been tumultuous for most companies.
“We are prepared for difficult situations, but I must admit that COVID-19 was different. We had to take extra precautions, which reinforced to us that we play an essential role in society and in the greater South African business community. The mutual value of what we do was pushed to the forefront,” says AVBOB CEO, Carl van der Riet.
Lessons from the founding years of AVBOB were crucial to the company’s success during the current crisis. In the wake of World War I, the Spanish Flu epidemic hit South Africa and killed about
300 000 people in just six weeks — making it one of the worst-hit countries in the world. It was during this time that AVBOB was founded in Bloemfontein.
What began as a community funeral association at the time, has grown into the largest mutual society in Africa, focusing on funeral insurance, funeral services, and the manufacturing of funeralware. The business, Van der Riet says, was founded on the principles of working together with a mutual objective: to fund dignified funerals of loved ones who died from the Spanish Flu. And, 103 years later, AVBOB has come full circle. “The very DNA of the organisation germinated in a pandemic environment.”
Adaptation in trying circumstances
Much like every other business, AVBOB was forced to adapt during the pandemic. This included upscaling its funeral and administrative services functions in remote areas in a very short space of time – particularly on the insurance (claims) side of the business, as the death toll kept rising.
“We had to equip our sales agents with electronic mechanisms to connect with clients, and expand our distribution channels. On the funeral side, we were probably best prepared, because we’re used to dealing with challenging experiences,” Van der Riet explains.
In addition, standard operating procedures needed to be modified, but the biggest challenge was adjusting to the stringent lockdown regulations – especially during level 5 lockdown. These developments had a major impact on customers who needed support to bury their loved ones in a dignified manner. The usual customs and practices around funerals for different cultures and religions couldn’t take place as before. Night vigils were not allowed and restrictions were placed on the number of people who could attend a funeral. This left funeral agents with more responsibility to support customers.
“When you have someone who is in bereavement and already stressed from experiencing loss, being the best service provider is the best way to ease the pain,” Van der Riet says. “But we adapted well, and became accustomed to the restrictions. This does not mean we are happy with the restrictions, but, with time and the easing of lockdown, it has also become easier for us.”
The pandemic also took a heavy toll on the mental and emotional wellbeing of AVBOB employees, especially frontline workers who feared contracting the virus. Furthermore, the shortage of personal protective equipment and needing to secure enough supplies posed a threat to the business’s ability to care for and service its customers.
Van der Riet explains that the sheer pressure of trying to handle service volumes, caused by the rising death toll during the first and second waves of the pandemic, required extended working hours to deal with the demand. There were also additional certificates of compliance and health regulations that AVBOB needed to comply with.
“This forced us into a growth and expansion phase, and we are aggressively growing. As a mutual society that does not have shareholders, AVBOB is owned by our members, who are our policyholders,” Van der Riet says, adding, “Everything that we do in the organisation is for the benefit of our policyholders”.
Long before the current epidemic, AVBOB crafted innovative ideas on how to best serve its policyholders beyond bereavement services. Over the years, AVBOB has been able to offer free incremental increases in policyholders’ cover levels. AVBOB has also implemented a free retrenchment benefit* that allows members to keep their policy active for six months, without paying premiums, in event of job loss.
According to Van der Riet, “This has been a valuable benefit in terms of the economic hardships that our policyholders are going through during the pandemic. We have taken a decision, as a business, that we’re not going to charge our customers for the PPE used by our undertakers and frontline staff conducting funerals, up until 31 March 2021; this is an excess cost of R12 million that we’ve absorbed.”
This has been further demonstrated through the uninterrupted provision of free member funeral benefits* by AVBOB Funeral Service, which saved their policyholders an additional R260 million from the beginning of July 2020 to the end of January 2021; and in the previous financial year policyholders benefitted to the tune of R320 million.
AVBOB has also entered into flexible premium payment terms with customers who cannot pay premiums. “People want to keep their policies, but are faced with extreme and genuine challenges, so we are very aware and sensitive to these realities.”
The way forward
As South Africa emerges from and struggles through the different phases of the pandemic – with a possible third wave at the beginning of winter, the worst, or most trying times for AVBOB may still lie ahead. Notwithstanding the uncertainties, Van der Riet says people – and the wellbeing of people – will remain at the centre of the company’s value proposition.
Through its growing CSI initiatives, AVBOB says that it will keep giving back to communities by empowering small businesses, promoting education at indigent schools across the country (through container libraries), and, most importantly, by being there for its policyholders during difficult times.
“For me, this pandemic has emphasised the necessity and value that we can add as an organisation to society and the communities we serve. It is during these unusual and trying times that the true nature of an organisation is revealed. I believe the true strength of AVBOB has been tested during the COVID-19 pandemic – and it is compassionate, impactful and resilient.”
*Terms and conditions apply.
Live streaming of funerals: A booming business in the pandemic
Before the Covid-19 pandemic little was known about live streaming, and though there were companies offering the service, business was not booming.
But with the new normal everyone had to change their way of doing things and embrace new things.
Last year, the Mail & Guardian reported that many families — especially black families — struggled with funerals under Covid-19 because they were used to having people coming over to offer their condolences in the week leading up to the funeral. They also did not know how to cater as they were not sure how many people would show up on the actual day of the funeral.
With lockdown regulations in place, especially under level five, which prevented people from travelling, this meant that many people missed out on important events such as funerals. The government created rules that allow only 50 people to attend a funeral. This has meant that those who were not close friends or family members could not attend funerals, but live streaming services have made it possible for people to be part of funeral services, even if they are not physically there.
Back in 2018 former television producer Wenzile Sjula Dlamini championed live streaming events as the future. Dlamini worked for a company that owned a live streaming app and that is how he got to understand and operate in that space. He left his job in 2018 to focus on his company, Sjula D productions, that he had registered in 2014. His core business is live streaming.
“We did believe that sooner than later the world is going to go digital. The idea was to try and encourage people to stream live events and have an online platform as well. We even have an online platform ourselves, me and my business partner,” he says.
When he was selling the idea to people, his message was that live streaming was there to make sure that people who could not attend important functions, such as weddings and graduations, because they were overseas or anywhere else in the world, could still be part of the experience through live streaming. At the time he had not thought about live streaming funerals.
“Live streaming is not just about somebody creating a YouTube channel. It is really trying to make sure that people that cannot make it physically to the event are present at whatever you are doing, to share the experience.”
Dlamini says, at the time, very few people were receptive to the idea of live streaming. He says he got a sense that even in boardrooms live streaming was the last thing on the agenda, because people saw it as a “nice to have” and not a necessity. However, he says this did not deter him and his business partner; they persevered, invested in the technology and learned a lot more about live streaming.
“We did get business there and there, we did staff for the IEC [Electoral Commission of South Africa]; some companies actually believed in what we were doing and they did buy into it. But because of budget constraints and it not being an important thing, it was slow … but we were patient,” says Dlamini.
And then Covid-19 happened. The government imposed lockdown, which came with serious restrictions for live events and functions. Dlamini says the first successful event Sjula D productions did was an online quarantine party.
He says with Covid-19 and lockdown, he could sell the idea of live streaming. “I would say to people, ‘listen guys, even at a funeral you can live stream. Don’t look at streaming as a fun, entertaining thing, there is a purpose for it — think of it as live TV. It is not a party, it is important’.”
He made examples of funerals for government officials and big names who were broadcast on TV. He told potential clients: “Think of streaming like that. The technology allows you to do something like this, where it is not about television: it allows you to attend the funeral of a family member and be part of it.”
He says the message gained traction and business took off. The first funeral Sjula D productions live streamed was a funeral of Dlamini’s friend’s mother, who died in April.
He says after doing that funeral he started receiving calls from other people who had lost their family members and wanted the company to live stream their funerals.
“I can definitely say that business is booming since I started out, I can say that. But of course it’s unfortunate that people are losing their loved ones, it is really unfortunate,” says Dlamini.
In a month he used to do five to 20 funerals. But things have gotten slower. He attributes it to having more people offering streaming services, and who are offering cheaper options.
He says with his background in production he will not compromise on quality and what he charges people, and that is why business has declined for Sjula D productions when it comes to funerals.
“But I know people who have taken off big time. For me, I do not offer funeral streaming services, I stream events. We stream to almost every platform you want: we can stream to social media, we can stream to a private site and we have streamed for television when we did Somizi’s mom’s funeral. That did not only go on YouTube but to the national broadcaster. That was big.”
Icon Mary Twala (Somizi Mhlongo’s mother) died in July. Under normal circumstances her funeral would have been attended by scores of people, but because of Covid-19 that did not happen. But people were able to be part of her funeral through live streaming.
In 2020 the last Rivonia trialist Andrew Mlangeni died, and instead of turning into a political rally as it has always been the case for funerals of political heavyweights, the comrades watched the funeral online. This was also the case for former minister in the presidency Jackson Mthembu, who died from Covid-19. Other big names such as jazz musician Sibongile Khumalo and Jonas Gwangwa also had their funerals streamed.
Dlamini says live streaming events is the future, and that is where the world is now. “Now if a family member passes away and you are overseas it is not a case of having to wait for you to come back. You can still be part of the experience, wherever you are in the world,” he says.
Eastern Cape-based Bulelani Mancotywa started Khiwa’s Media in 2015, offering videography and photography for events such as weddings and funerals; he also did work for the provincial government and big musical concerts in that province. He has switched focus and concentrates more on offering live streaming services.
Mancotywa says immediately after lockdown level five was announced in March he started getting business to stream funerals. He says after watching a funeral he had live streamed people would contact him to do the same for their families, and that is how he got business.
He says his busiest times for funerals were in December and January.
“I was really, really, really busy. I would even do three funerals in a week.”
But recently Khiwa’s Media has not been as busy as it was in those two months. In February he did one funeral, and he has done only one funeral in March so far. “Business is slow when it comes to funerals. Of course it is a good thing that people are not dying, but it has been tough, especially because events are still prohibited,” he says.
Just like Dlamini, Mancontywa believes that there is no going back now and that live streaming is here to stay. “Live streaming has made things easier. You do not have to wait for someone to come from Cape Town before you can bury someone. If they are unable to make it, they can watch the funeral online. — Naledi Radebe
Covid-19 robs many from burying their loved ones
Nomsa Shota* did not bury her friend of more than 20 years because of Covid-19.
She has not let go of her, or her memory. She has yet to delete her friend’s number or pictures of her friend on her phone.
“I feel like I owe her something for not being able to go bury her,” she says.
The arrival of Covid-19 on South African shores meant that many things that people were accustomed to had to change, including funerals.
In order to fight the spread of the coronavirus the government developed rules that completely changed how funerals took place in the country. They stopped being large affairs; only 50 people were allowed to attend. This has meant that many people, like Shota, have been robbed of the opportunity to attend the funerals of their loved ones, and thus gain closure.
Shota and her friend first met as neighbours; they later formed a friendship. They registered for postgraduate studies at the same time, and often did assignments together. Shota sought counsel in her late friend when she was going through problems. “I learnt a lot from her. I really felt bad when I could not go to her funeral. She was my mentor.”
Then Shota’s younger brother got married to her late friend’s daughter. “We were friends and later became family, but I did not know how deeply I loved her until she died. I was really, really heartbroken. It felt like I had lost my own sister,” she says.
Part of the reason why Shota did not attend the funeral is also because she is living with diabetes and was scared of endangering her own health, but she says she felt bad for not attending.
“I still have that gaping hole in me that says I did not attend her funeral and I do not know how to close it. Covid robbed me of an opportunity to celebrate her life and grieve properly for her. Every day I think to myself, ‘where can I get an opportunity to talk about her and what she meant to me’; I feel like I owe her something for not going to her funeral.”
Although the government put rules in place for funerals, there were many who defied these regulations. In response, in a national address in January, President Cyril Ramaphosa implored South Africans not to attend funerals if possible, as these may become super-spreader events.
“Providing a fitting send-off for a departed loved one is deeply ingrained in all of us. There are certain rituals that we perform in line with our respective cultures and traditions, not just at the funeral itself but in the days leading up to the burial. But these are all things we simply cannot do at this time,” said Ramaphosa.
“We are in the grip of a deadly pandemic and all these activities that would normally take place are just increasing our exposure to risk — for ourselves, for the bereaved family and for our own families at home.
“There will be a time when we can go to the home of the deceased to pay our respects, and to sympathise properly with our neighbours, friends and relatives. Funerals have become a death trap for many of our people. For now, it is best and safer to stay at home.”
The funeral of Shota’s friend was streamed online, but she says she could not bring herself to watch it.
“I watched parts of it. I felt that I was not supposed to be watching it, but that I should have been at the funeral and talking about her as someone who meant a lot to me … It still breaks my heart that in her last hour I was unable to talk about the woman she was in my life,” she says. “I have not deleted her number on my phone, I have not healed. When I see her face I imagine us having a conversation, because I never had that last moment with her. I now believe it is true what they say, that if you did not bury someone, you never let them go from your heart. I think maybe if I can go to her grave I will find peace.”
But it is not only her friend of over 20 years that Shota did not bury. She also lost one of her close cousins to Covid-19 and she did not go to bury him either. She says it was only after visiting his grave that she made peace with his passing. “I have not let go of all the people that I did not go to bury.”
Like their mother, Shota’s twin daughters Nosipho* and Siphesihle* say they have not come to terms with the death of the woman they considered their second grandmother, because they never attended her funeral.
“I practically grew up around her …she used to call us bhabhana,” says Nosipho. “It saddened me that I could not go to the funeral of someone I grew up in front of, I could not grieve her properly and pay my last respects.”
She adds that the experience for her is “ weird” and she still does not know how to put it in words, except that it was “gut-wrenching” .
Siphesihle says the fact that she did not physically go to the funeral makes the whole thing surreal.
“Sometimes I even forget that she is dead … I can’t believe it till this day. I did not physically see the coffin go down and also I did not go to the graveside; it still makes it seem unreal,” she says.
The 15-year-old twins say watching the funeral online was bizarre and that they did not know, before Covid-19, that it was possible to have a virtual funeral. They say what was also sad about the funeral is that not a lot of people could attend to give the family the support they needed.
“It felt like I was selfish for not being there; I was just watching on a screen. I was not experiencing their pain, I was not with them. I could not physically go through what they were experiencing. I was just watching on a screen, as if I was watching something entertaining, when it was actually the funeral of someone close to me.
“I felt guilty when I got distracted in front of the screen. And seeing her children cry, her grandchildren cry, was really gut-wrenching, I felt like reaching through the screen and comforting them — but you can’t, you’re so far away.”
Another person who is still dealing with the loss of a friend and a colleague is Nhlakanipho Sithole*.
In December his close friend and colleague died from Covid-19, and because of the funeral regulations he did not go attend his funeral. The only thing he and his colleagues managed to do to honour the man was attend a drive-through memorial service.
Sithole and his late friend used to ride in the same car to school, and this strengthened their bond.
“I am still sad. It was as if we had neglected him, as if he did not have friends. It felt like we not only neglected him but we neglected the family too, because we were not there to comfort them and say our last words. It was not okay, I was not okay, because he was my friend,” he says. “I never thought that I would experience something like this, because with all your friends when they have departed you want to be there so that people can see that you were close and to say your final words; not being able to do that is not okay.”
Sithole says three months later it still has not sunk in to him that his friend is dead. “The fact that I did not attend his funeral did not make it final to me, it feels like Nyawose is on leave and is going to be back, and this is because I was not there to see the coffin going down.”
So far Covid-19 has claimed over 50 000 lives in South Africa. And like Shota, her twin daughters and Sithole, thousands of others have had to live with not being physically present at the funerals of their loved ones. — Naledi Radebe
*Not their real names
Grieving during the pandemic is also about losing what was ‘normal’
Death under normal circumstances is overwhelming, but the pandemic has exacerbated the level of bereavement people find themselves in. It caused a level of grief that has not been witnessed in decades, and many are still struggling to come to terms with burying their loved ones during lockdown restrictions and in ways that don’t resonate with their spiritual beliefs. This makes it more difficult to me to terms with the loss.
This is exactly how Kagiso Letsholo felt when she lost her grandmother, Gabainewe Martha Choeneemang, at the beginning of the year. “My grandmother passed away in her late 80s and came to visit us shortly before she died in December,” she remembers. “She came to see us because she wanted to spend time with her daughter — my mother.”
Choeneemang had become disorientated and sometimes didn’t make sense when she spoke, says Letsholo. After spending a few days with them during the festive season, she tested positive for Covid-19 shortly after New Year’s Day and passed away a few days after she was admitted to hospital. Letsholo’s parents also tested positive for Covid-19 and the family waited until her mother was done with her isolation to proceed with Choeneemang’s funeral.
One of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic has been losing loved ones and not having the typical space to grief them as before. For many people who are guided by spiritual, religious or cultural customs, the “new normal” has meant forgoing a significant part of who they are during a difficult time in their lives. Under South Africa’s current Level 1 lockdown, attendance at a funeral is limited to 100 people or less, provided that the venue is not more than 50% full, and with social distancing observed. Night vigils — a fundamental part of many black people’s funerals — are still not allowed. Under stricter lockdowns, only 50 people were allowed at a funeral.
The adaptation to bereavement during the Covid-19 pandemic has not been ignored as a field of study, although it is not on the same scale as the scientific and biomedical aspects of the pandemic, which have taken precedence. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), many people have and are currently experiencing unprecedented amounts of grief, a normal response to a loss during or after a disaster or any other traumatic event. Grief, however, is not only a result or response to the loss of life, but also to the drastic changes to people’s daily routines and the ways in which life has been disturbed from what was known as “normal”. There are common reactions to grief, including shock, disbelief or denial; anxiety; anger and loss of sleep and appetite, states the CDC.
The grief caused by the pandemic has also been compounded by the inability of people to be with their loved ones as they die and being unable to mourn their death in person, with friends and family.
“People in Covid-19 bereavement situations have to face different or additional stressors and sometimes have to cope with them in novel ways, different from those which we have previously illustrated,” a recent study published in OMEGA, the Journal of Death and Dying, states. “The landscape of grief and grieving emerges as changed in significant ways from pre-Covid-19 times.”
Beyond just loss, there are various cultural and religious ways in which people observe and honour their departed loved ones. In the case of Letsholo’s grandmother, the arrival of the corpse the night before; having a night vigil; viewing of the deceased and a large funeral with extended family, friends and the community at large present was normal. But the pandemic upended all this, making what was already a difficult and sudden death even more heartbreaking.
Letsholo says: “The usual funeral processes couldn’t happen because the funeral was during the pandemic, where we had that curfew. People had to be out by a certain time. There was no lying on the mattress and as black people even preparing the food together is our language of love,” she explains. “It was a bit weird to not have all these things we were accustomed to.” The funeral parlour hired for her grandmother’s funeral was kind enough to drive by the house with the corpse as a compromise to the overnight stay and viewing, Letsholo says. Although this wasn’t the same, the gesture was welcomed and appreciated.
The size of Choeneemang’s family didn’t make matters easier and capping the number of attendees was challenging, albeit necessary as funerals in South Africa have been identified as super-spreader events. The government has been criticised for not being cognisant of the cultural and spiritual significance of funerals to people’s grieving process, though some argue that the public health needs and prevention protocols needed to take precedence. In January, President Cyril Ramaphosa referred to funerals as “death traps” and the cause of further mourning and suffering for South Africans.
“Providing a fitting send-off for a departed loved one is deeply ingrained in all of us. There are certain rituals that we perform in line with our respective cultures and traditions; not just at the funeral itself but in the days leading up to the burial,” he said. “But these are all things we simply cannot do at this time. We are in the grip of a deadly pandemic and all these activities that would normally take place are just increasing our exposure to risk — for ourselves, for the bereaved family and for our own families at home.”
Letsholo says drawing up the list of who can or cannot attend her grandmother’s funeral added to the stress of losing her, as the closest family members alone — the deceased’s children and grandchildren — already exceeded the 50-person limit. Additionally, other family members couldn’t attend out of fear of contracting the virus or because they were considered high risk due to comorbidities. “I loved how people were compliant with the Covid-19 protocols for funerals and were respectful with the list our family made,” she remembers. “My grandmother’s casket was wrapped in clingwrap and we had to sit very far from the burial site — we couldn’t see anything. It was weird.”
After the funeral procession at the cemetery, the family returned back to Choeneemang’s house where, under normal circumstances, there would have been aloe water at the gate, used to cleanse people who were at the cemetery. This was yet another culturally significant aspect of funerals that was missing because it puts people at risk of contracting Covid-19. “Instead of using the same bowl of water, as usual, we had someone at the gate with a jug of water making sure people were washing their hands and sanitising before entering the yard,” Letsholo explains. “Our family is not traditional, but because the funeral was in a village, there are some customs that have become normalised into everyday living there. The pandemic has forced us to be anti-social, even at funerals, and as black people funerals are a time to come together and spend time with family.”
While there isn’t an end in sight to the pandemic, adjusting customs and rituals to public health protocols that protect the spread of Covid-19 is non-negotiable. Many are trying out innovative ways of honouring those who they have lost without compromising on their religious or cultural beliefs, while still ensuring the safety of those in attendance. — Pontsho Pilane