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Covid disrupts traditional rituals of mourning

- William Gumede

We need to find ways to grieve as individuals, and collectively as a nation, or we risk grief becoming chronic, unleashing psychological and physical illnesses.

Although many South Africans have experienced so much grief that they often assume they did not have the time, the luxury, or the money to grief, stoically soldiering on with life after devastating losses, they will have to find ways to grief as individuals, and also collectively as a nation, or risk grief becoming chronic, unleashing new emotional, psychological, and physical illnesses.

I suffered the devastating loss at the end of May 2021, of a very close friend, Thashnee Padiaychee, who was in the prime of her life, not of Covid-19, but of breast cancer. Like many, following a bereavement I felt intense sadness, struggled to let go and trying to make sense of her death, wondering whether there could have been other therapies available around the world to treat her cancer that we may not have been aware of.

The devastation wreaked by Covid-19 caused many South Africans wretching grief, their lives shattered by the death or illness of a loved one, either because of Covid-19 or because of other critical illnesses aggravated by the impact of Covid-19.

Heartbreakingly, many Covid-related deaths could have been prevented. There was government incompetence in not procuring vaccines earlier. Some ANC government leaders made decisions to buy vaccines based on ideology, rejecting supposedly “Western” manufactured vaccines, for developing country manufacturing ones – in the process delaying the delivery of vaccines to the ill.

There was corruption in the misappropriation of funds intended for protective equipment. There was an ill-considered delay in allowing the private sector to roll out vaccines. Harmful myths were and are still spread about vaccines. Quack remedies were often proffered – and still are.  

The public health service has been crippled by patronage appointments of incompetent politically connected cadres, the capture of procurement of critical supplies and ideological decision-making and corruption, resulting in healthcare, medicine, and facilities not available for Covid suffers, but also for those struggling with critical illnesses such as cancer.  The loss of lives under circumstances of government corruption, mismanagement, and lack of care, is even harder to bear.

Covid-19 disrupted many of the rituals of mourning and grief – because of the lockdown restrictions on funerals, communal singing, and social distancing. Many were deprived of saying final farewells, giving a last touch or holding a hand of those who have died during this Covid-19 epidemic.  Pursuing face-to-face reconciliation, forgiveness, and closure with those on their deathbeds which is so crucial for post-grief healing has been impossible during Covid-19.

It is crucial that especially black South Africans find time, space, and support to grief, not only for Covid-19 grief, but all other losses, traumas, and deaths. The cumulative grief of lives lost many black South Africans experienced before Covid-19, now combined with Covid-19, could lead to what specialists call “prolonged grief disorder”, in which grief symptoms, without active intervention or treatment, may persist indefinitely.

Self-care is going to be crucial to overcome grief. The loss of someone close may shake one’s sense of self. Life may feel meaningless. Numbing oneself emotionally to deal with the shock as is often the case in particularly black communities that have experienced so much trauma, is not healthy.

One has to accept that “bad things happen at random”. Successfully rebuilding one’s life after the passing of a loved one is to try to find a new sense of purpose in the tragedy, to continue to care about others and to stay engaged with one’s surroundings. Given the fragility of life it is important that we live more intentionally, engage more consciously and caringly with the ones we love and feel gratitude for being alive. And that we love consciously – whether intimate partners, family, or friends.

Toxic relations whether in intimate partners, personal friendships or with toxic political parties one supports should be jettisoned.

The fragility of life underscored by Covid-19 must compel us to increase the frequency of use keeping in contact with family members, friends, co-workers, and neighbours. It must also end the culture of secrets within families, for us to become more accepting of differences and different beliefs.

As I grew older, I have come to appreciate the cultural, religious, spiritual, and communal rituals during apartheid that helped many of us recover from the death of loved ones, misfortune, and trauma. The community fragmentation in the post-apartheid-era, partially because of state failure, corruption, and the corruption in many instances of many traditional grief rituals, means that it may be necessary for some of the rituals to be adapted for present times and new more relevant and appropriate ones fostered. New individual, family and community memorials are crucial to celebrate those who died in symbolic and spiritual ways and in memories.  

Black South Africans, because they are generally poorer, have been unequally hit by dead, chronic illnesses, and post-traumatic trauma because of Covid-19 or because of critical illnesses aggravated by the impact of the virus. Because of South Africa’s segregated past, South Africa does not have collective mournings, rituals and memorials, as these are also segregated along race, ethnicity, and political affiliation. Covid-19 is an opportunity for the country to foster a national ritual of mourning around the illness that can cut across ethnic, colour or political affiliation.

If all South Africans, use the Covid-19 experience to work towards restoring solidarity, empathy and caring for others, across colour, ethnicity and political affiliation for those who are grieving, the devastation of Covid-19 could be turned into a new sense of common national spirit.

A national memorial for those who died of Covid-19 across colour, ethnicity and political affiliation, in which the names and the pictures of all those who died of Covid-19 should be considered. In this way, Covid-19 could be something South Africa can unite around – even if in grieving.

William Gumede is Associate Professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times (Tafelberg). This article was first published in TimesLive/Sunday Times.