Where death comes wrapped in plastic: Eastern Cape battles to curb Covid-19 outbreak

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  • Covid-19 has devastated the Eastern Cape, and exposed the province's public healthcare shortcomings.
  • At least 24 healthcare workers have died in the province, and about 800 have contracted Covid-19.
  • One Eastern Cape undertaker reports an increase in 50 percent of bodies because of the pandemic.

The tentacles of coronavirus have snaked into the Eastern Cape, delving stealthily into its under-equipped hospitals and impoverished townships.

The province is the third worst-affected in South Africa, which has recorded over a quarter of a million coronavirus cases since March - the highest in Africa.

In the industrial capital of Port Elizabeth, four people on the frontline - a survivor, a doctor, a nurse and an undertaker - shared their experiences with AFP.

The elderly survivor 

Nomonde Baatjies, 71, sat propped up in bed in a white fluffy dressing gown, still weakened by 14 days of intensive care treatment.

Her 45-year-old daughter Mpumie said she had feared her mother would only return in "a box wrapped in plastic". Now, as her mum convalesces at home, she is intensely relieved.

As a diabetic with blood clots and hypertension, Baatjies has rolled the dice with Covid-19.

"I wasn't breathing by myself," she recalled of the days she spent on oxygen. "What I was afraid of is death".

She recalled many sleepless nights in a "full" hospital ward.

"In the morning you would see somebody new - the other [patient] that was there, you didn't know if they were discharged or something else".

Still shaky from the experience, Baatjies points to a bowl of oranges by her bedside which have helped to revive her taste buds.

The avid baker is getting better.

"Yesterday... I sat in a chair [and] called my children: bring the flour, the dry yeast. I made fat cakes," she said, referring to a local form of doughnuts.

The doctor 

At the beleaguered Livingstone public hospital, medics are working around the clock to fill in for sick colleagues.

"It's a constant battle to move this system forward," said Dr John Black, an infectious disease specialist, blinking back fatigue at the end of a long shift.

Staff there have staged recurrent protests over working conditions and lack of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Last month, pictures of rubbish-strewn corridors and dirty linen were circulated on social media after cleaners and porters refused to work.

Over 800 healthcare workers have contracted coronavirus in the province, of whom at least 24 have died.

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"We were already under a lot of strain before Covid happened," Black said. "This additional strain is taking its toll".

"We are 30 to 40 percent down on our workforce trying to treat double the number of patients".

Staff relied on "hand to mouth" PPE donations and critical supplies for patients were lacking.

"No-one should die because of lack of oxygen," he said.

The nurse 

"I found out yesterday," the nurse said, peering through the window on her first day of home isolation after testing positive with Covid-19.

"I was shaking with chills and I knew something was going on," she recalled.

The nurse, who did not wish to be named, had been expecting to catch coronavirus at her clinic - where she attends a growing influx of suspected cases without proper protection.

Aged 53, she was grateful her symptoms remained mild.

Puffy-eyed in green pyjamas, the nurse admitted she felt "failed" by the government's response to the pandemic.

"They should go the extra mile to spend on us to keep us safe and have fresh PPE every day," the nurse said, noting that she was often forced to recycle disposable aprons.

"We just sprayed it off at the end of the day and we didn't know how effective that is".

The undertaker 

Glass doors shut behind a last handful of mourners as they filed out of Sello Headbush's funeral parlour, stepping into an afternoon drizzle.

"They came to view a body," he said, but because of the highly infectious virus, "we are not allowed to show them".

The small family-run business in Kwazakhele township has been preparing 50 percent more bodies since coronavirus hit.

"We must make sure that it is sealed in a body bag," Headbush explained, diligently reciting the new protocol.

"From here the body must go straight to the graveyard [where] only my guys with PPE are allowed to touch the coffin".

Despite the uptick in business, he felt sorry for relatives unable to pay their loved-one a proper tribute.

"It causes a lot of distress," he said.

When possible, Headbush arranged for the hearse to drive by its mourning household for a quick last prayer "from the car" before burial.

Four of his friends succumbed to the virus last week.

"There are no [hospital] beds, you can wait there and die before the doctor sees you".

*CORRECTION: The caption in the image of this story incorrectly stated that Eastern Cape has 250 million cases. This was a misprint and incorrect. It has been corrected. We regret the error.

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