Covid-19: Does The Dead Have Rights Amid Surging Deaths in Africa?


For centuries in Africa, burials have been an important social occasion for communities to honour a departed soul.

In many instances, the norm has been to preserve the body for some time to allow all family members attend the funeral and to allow relatives, friends and even strangers to pull together resources to give a departed soul a fancy, befitting send-off.

From the dancing pallbearers of Ghana, the professional mourners of Kenya to the loud rhythmic mourning cries in Zambia, many communities in Africa respect the dead and hold spectacular events not only to mourn and comfort the bereaved but also to celebrate cultural heritage.

But with the ravaging corona virus pandemic across the continent, questions keep lingering on whether the virus has also killed the right of dead people to a dignified and decent send-off and whether the dead have any right at all.

At the beginning of the pandemic in Kenya, two strange caught my attention.

First, a victim of the Covid-19 stuffed in a body bag was hurriedly buried in the middle of the night a few hours after his death, resulting in widespread uproar, condemnation and protest across the country.

In the second case, a community snatched the body of a Covid-19 victim when it was being transported to the burial site by security officers and returned the corpse to the mortuary claiming they must be given time to mourn and give their departed kin a befitting burial.

“In this time of corona virus, we have to change our traditions and ways of burial. God says let the dead bury themselves but we will say that let us bury our people. We should agree that there are things we need to do away with and do the burial in accordance with health guidelines,” Kenya’s Education Minister Prof George Magoha was saying.

This is the dilemma created by Covid-19 pandemic on cultural heritage as opinions continue to be divided on whether the dead have rights.

“In this time of the global pandemic, the people should be prepared to abandon their burial cultures and accept that COVID-19 victims’ bodies shall be disposed of in a manner that protects the living from infections and in accordance with the guidelines issued by the World Health Organizations,” said Kenya’s Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe.

This burial controversy cuts across many African countries that are still adamant on their cultural burial ceremonies.

In Tanzania, online videos of funerals of Covid-19 victims taking place at night under tight security with health officials in protective clothes and very few mourners in attendance caused concern of cover up even after the Tanzanian government declared the country to be free from the virus.

Uganda’s Members of Parliament also questioned the government over the manner in which they conducted the burial of the first patient who succumbed to Covid-19.

The patient was buried in a shallow grave less than 36 hours after her death, with the politicians demanding that the body be exhumed and the deceased be given a decent send-off.

In South Africa, the government dug thousands of graves in cemeteries in anticipation of a high number of corona virus deaths which happened hurriedly in total defiance of the cultural beliefs of giving the deceased a good send-off.

The dispute has also divided legal fields with no conclusive precedent in any jurisdiction on the rights of the dead.

Whereas other legal precedents suggest that the dead do not have rights because they cannot marry, divorce, own property or vote; others affirm that the legal rights are protected and cannot be violated even in the midst of the Corona virus pandemic.

“Various legal institutions have spent time to protect the right of the dead irrespective of the cause of death. It is why burial requests from families are always granted by the courts and the will of dead honoured by the living,” said Kirsten Rabe, a legal scholar in one of her writings.

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