Aids deaths overwhelm Zimbabwe's mortuaries

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The Independent Online

In the mortuary of one of Zimbabwe's main hospitals, Paul Tabvemhiri faces a gruesome choice. In the under-cooled main refrigeration room, built for 21 corpses but generally housing up to 60, he can either stack the stinking bodies two to a shelf. Or he can lay them on the floor, so visitors have to step over them when they come to claim their dead.

In the mortuary of one of Zimbabwe's main hospitals, Paul Tabvemhiri faces a gruesome choice. In the under-cooled main refrigeration room, built for 21 corpses but generally housing up to 60, he can either stack the stinking bodies two to a shelf. Or he can lay them on the floor, so visitors have to step over them when they come to claim their dead.

"No one tells us the cause of death but the number of corpses is ever-increasing. We know it is Aids. We gave out 18 for burial today - a fairly average day," said Mr Tabvemhiri. He has worked for seven years at Parirenyatwa Hospital, in the capital, Harare. Since June last year, the mortuary - where the smell is apparent from the street outside and overpowering indoors - has been open around the clock.

"People can collect the bodies once they have obtained a burial order. But when five or six people have died in your family, it begins to cost too much for many people," he said, pointing to five bodies on the floor, wrapped in see-through plastic bags. "They have been here for more than a month. They will eventually be put in a pauper's grave."

According to government figures, 340 people die every day in Harare, 240 of them from Aids-related illnesses. Zimbabwe, which has a population of about 13 million, has the most shocking Aids statistics in the world: the UN's most conservative estimate puts the HIV infection rate at 25 per cent of working-age adults.

Life expectancy peaked in 1990 at 61. It is now 49. The orphan population is growing by the day, with an increasing number of households being headed either by teenagers or geriatrics. Four-fifths of the country's scarce hospital beds are occupied by Aids patients. This year alone, 80,000 Zimbabweans are expected to die from Aids, bringing the cumulative toll to more than half a million in the last 14 years.

Eladino Zimbwa, curator of cemeteries for Harare, said the government had launched a campaign to encourage cremation. "We are running out of space in the graveyards. At the moment in our two open cemeteries [the five others are full], we have two burials per hour, every hour, between 10am and 3pm, seven days a week.

"The cremation campaign is not working, despite a lot of media coverage, because it is against our culture. Last year in Harare there were 717 cremations, only one of them for a black person. But I am hoping we will increase the figure thanks to economic necessity.

"Even though a cremation is as expensive as a coffin burial, the exercise is cheaper for those who want to take their dead back to the village, as is traditional. They can just put the urn on their lap in the bus, rather than having to arrange a minibus," he said.

Godfrey Chimutashu, 49, who drives a taxi in Harare, considers himself a typical Zimbabwean. He said: "Last Tuesday we buried my nephew, Washington, who was 28. I am sure his wife and the youngest of his two children are infected. Two years ago my other nephew, Edmore, who was 35, also died from Aids. I know 20 friends or relatives who have died from the illness in the last five years.

"In the family, I talk quite openly about Aids and make a point of doing so when children are around. I tell them not to go to the beer hall and not to assume that just because a girl is beautiful, she isn't infected. The trouble in Zimbabwe is that, if you mention condoms, your partner will assume you are sleeping around."

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