Before Covid-19 came, human beings had since time immemorial believed your enemy cannot hurt you after you are dead. Even Hannibal, the Carthaginian general acknowledged as the father of military strategy, committed suicide to deny the Romans the pleasure of capturing him after spending his entire life fighting and often defeating them. And the Christian Son of God teaches not to fear those who can only kill the body.
But now death is no longer the end of earthly suffering in Uganda, where hospitals are at the forefront of stripping it of all mystery. Hospitals have discarded the traditional respect for the dead, which is even in our Penal Code that punishes “disturbing the peace of the dead” if, for example, you go fooling around in a cemetery.
Private hospitals stopped showing patients that they expect them to die quickly on admission. If you don’t have ready cash, you surrender collateral, mostly a land title deed. But when you die, do not expect the security is enough to secure your freedom; your corpse will remain imprisoned in their mortuary, to be released only after your family has raised the cash to retire the mortgage. So even if you did a Hannibal, you remain in captivity until you make good.
Covid-19 has thus killed the reverence for health workers, which previously surpassed that for religious leaders.
Before you ask if Ugandans who live on a dollar a day get to die in a private hospital, be informed that they are more affected under the “new normal” of disrespecting the dead. An African death is usually immediately followed by elaborate procedures of breaking the sad news.
For what’s the hurry when one is dead? Even Europeans took 12 days to learn of Abraham Lincoln’s death in 1865. But that didn’t stop them mourning Lincoln elaborately, and being shocked by his assassination, then only comparable to Julius Caesar’s two millennia earlier.
For Ugandans, before radio broadcasting came, a strong clansman would be dispatched to inform the farthest relatives of the deceased, and the journey could take him days. On arrival, he did not blurt out that so and so is dead. He would wait until the family has welcomed him, the next meal served and eaten, then he would go “…incidentally, where I have come from things are not very good…” The women folk would then start the wailing as the family prepared for the journey to the funeral the following day.
When radio came and became accessible to the locals around independence, the death announcements were the only programme more important than national news. When the family radio’s batteries became weak, listening to radio got rationed to only death announcements.
Readers of death announcements were bigger celebrities than today’s biggest DJs and show hosts. Their skills kit included ability to read fast without making mistakes, for the announcements earned the station bags of money. The advent of private broadcasting made the death announcements even more popular because FM stations are now localised, broadcasting in local languages of their areas.
Now Covid-19 has also caused the death of death announcements! For the announcements have been mobilising all “relative, friends and in-laws” — a standard phrase Ugandans use to announce death, which wags have amended to “relathieves’’.
Because the virus is fastest spread by crowding — and an African funeral is assessed by the size of the crowd — the authorities around the country have been banning death announcements from local radios.
Last week, the government criminalised the attendance of a funeral (or wedding) where more than 20 people are present — you get two months in prison if you do. That means that the immediate family of the deceased have to perform the onerous task of digging the grave, and handling the corpse.
So the cruel coronavirus now crowned the trauma of the bereaved by making them undertakers.
Asking about safe handling of the supposedly toxic remains of the Covid-19 victim? Previously, funeral companies were struggling for business, now they are chocking with work, as money chases them, however high they hike the charges. The government issued guidelines for safely burying Covid-19 corpses.
And thus Covid has commonised death.
Joachim Buwembo is a Kampala-based journalist. E-mail: [email protected]