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Mourners in Ghana stand around an open grave
Image: Getty Images/AFP/R. McDowall

Ghana's morgues congested

Isaac Kaledzi
April 13, 2020

Major cultural events like funerals have had to be put on hold in Ghana amid the COVID-19 lockdown. Families are reluctant to hold private burials, instead opting to leave the bodies of their loved ones in the morgue.

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Emmanuel Akorh's 85-year-old mother passed away months ago. But her body still lies in the morgue.

Like many families in Ghana, Akorh refuses to carry out a small, private burial as recommended by authorities, preferring instead to wait until the coronavirus lockdown has been lifted so he can hold a more elaborate funeral for friends and family.

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Although he may have to wait many more weeks – months even – for Akorh, it was an easy decision to make.

"If I'm told to go and remove my [mother's] body from [the morgue], then I don't know where I should take it because we are not used to this private [burial] thing," he told DW. "Later when everything is over, then maybe I will have an actual burial."

Private burials in Ghana are rare. Funerals are typically large, heavily symbolic affairs held primarily on weekends. Many involve singing and dancing and can be as expensive as weddings. Even before the pandemic hit the country, it wasn't unheard of to leave bodies in the morgue for weeks or even months on end, as families and communities busied themselves with elaborate funeral arrangements.

'We cannot take on any more bodies'

But amid the coronavirus pandemic, this attitude is already having serious implications for morgues in big cities like Accra and Kumasi.

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With families reluctant to collect the bodies until social distancing restrictions have eased, the morgues are filling up even faster than usual, with some already at full capacity. The morgue administrator at Pantang Hospital in Accra told DW that trying to manage the facility at this point is futile.

"Currently [the morgue] is full, and once it is full, we cannot take on any more bodies. So we are hoping that when people come to collect the bodies, we will free up some space. Once we stop taking bodies, it also means that we start losing money."

Catholic burial ceremony in Africa
In most African countries, funerals are typically large and heavily symbolic affairs held primarily on weekendsImage: picture-alliance/Godong

Fears congested mortuaries may harbor virus

Those who work in Ghana's increasingly congested morgues are now worried they are being forced to work in conditions that put them at a higher risk of contracting COVID-19. The general secretary for the Mortuary Workers Association of Ghana (MOWAG), Richard Kofi Jordan, says mortuaries need to be decongested if they hope to avoid an outbreak of the virus.

"Ghanaian mortuaries are just like prisons – they don't have any space and because it's likely that someone might die from undetected COVID-19 at home, they might still be taken to the mortuary," he told DW. "If the place is crowded, there will likely be a transfer of the virus, so even though we are trying to fight COVID-19, we will actually end up spreading it more. So there is likely to be another outbreak if we do not decongest our mortuaries."

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Hospital workers appeal to families

With authorities now extending the lockdown in Accra and Kumasi by another week, mortuary workers like Jordan are appealing to families to have a change of heart and collect the bodies of their loved ones for private burial to help free up space – even if it goes against cultural norms.

"Why would you want to keep bodies in a fridge for six months?" says Jordan. "It's about time this cultural [practice] starts to die gradually. It's not going to be easy, but I think Ghanaians will learn to adjust to the situation."

Jordan says the situation could also be helpful for families who are struggling to make ends meet.

"If you don't have enough money [for a funeral] then now is the time to save, because you have the opportunity to have a burial without having to feed a crowd of people."

But with cases of coronavirus rising in Ghana and the potential for the lockdown to be extended even further, there is still no end in sight to the crisis in the country's morgues.

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