WATCH | Covid-19: Death, lost dignity and stigma - Mthatha nuns forced to bury 5 of their own

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  • Five nuns died and 17 tested positive at Glen Avent convent in Mthatha, which was then turned into a quarantine site.
  • Sister Nokwanda Bam describes the indignity of having to bury their own, naked and in plastic, with no traditional send-off.
  • Bam also says the stigma, and fear of the virus, was not pleasant, as staff became fearful of contracting Covid-19.

"We went to her room and found her lying there, her body stiff."

A nun from Glen Avent convent in Mthatha, who is also a nurse, says Covid-19 stripped her sisters of the human dignity of a proper burial, as the virus spread through their compound, turning it into a quarantine site.

Glen Avent convent, in Mthatha received media attention when half of the community tested positive in June. Five nuns at the convent died shortly after testing positive.

When the number of positive cases started rising, Sister Nokwanda Bam, a qualified nurse, took charge, taking care of the positive sisters. She later tested positive.

Describing the death of her colleagues, Bam said she was left traumatised and often could not sleep.

READ | Eastern Cape needs 3 000 ICU beds for incomming Covid-19 storm

Customarily when a nun at the convent dies in the house, a spiritual ritual is performed before the body is taken to the mortuary. Bam said this entailed sisters washing the body, prayer, shutting of the eyes and dressing her in her best religious regalia.

With the new regulations around Covid-19, families of deceased loved ones are discouraged from touching and dressing the body. Some mortuaries advise against covering the deceased's body, she said.

Cremation of Covid-19 bodies is also seen as a favourable option by government.

Bam said she felt helpless the first time she discovered the body of another nun, and unable to perform the convent's treasured last goodbye.

"I took out her dress, in preparation to dress her up and I remembered that, I was not allowed. It felt like we are breaking all the customs that we use to do."

"It was heartbreaking to see the nakedness of my sister."

The next day, Bam was faced with the same ordeal when another nun died from Covid-19.

Dignity

"We went to her room and found her lying there, her body stiff. I put overalls [on] and cut her nightdress and covered her quietly with this bed sheet. To see [her] naked, that helplessness. We use to treat our sisters with dignity.

"To give them this last dignity. But now here is Covid-19, [it] has stripped us of this kind of human dignity. Our sisters, their dead bodies are lying uncovered. It was traumatic. I faced it unprepared. There wasn't much time to think about it."

Bam had no time to mourn the death of her five colleagues, she soon came face to face with her own mortality when she tested positive.

'It reminded me of Jesus Christ'

"As I stayed in isolation block it all came, somehow it was the reason I could not sleep. It was that trauma, nakedness, the helplessness of our deceased sisters. Having to go to that mortuary in that naked body. It reminded me of Jesus Christ."

On Monday, 17 nuns who had stayed in isolation blocks at the convent received an all-clear. When News24 visited the convent, Bam said the recovered sisters were in the process of re-integrating with their community.

The convent was not unblemished by the stigma of Covid-19. Bam said the nuns who tested negative discriminated against their positive colleagues. She added that she felt fear and shame because it felt like she was not hygienic.

"Sisters who were negative literally ran away from them. Some of those hurtful comments that came on board like 'see how they look'. When we were in self-isolation, we're not dressed up. Some of us were wearing dresses and gowns. The sights that were there, some of them were not so pleasant."

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