Harare, Zimbabwe – Since New Year’s Day, Thomas Rasauka*, a gravedigger in Zimbabwe’s capital, has had very little rest.
“We are digging 10 to 12 graves daily now,” he said, describing the past few weeks as one of the most tiresome and busiest periods in all his 12 years in the profession.
It is mid-morning on Monday and Rasauka and seven of his colleagues at Warren Hills Cemetery, one of the oldest graveyards west of Harare, dig the semi-dry ground, forcefully tossing the loose red sand and heaping it on the side.
It is the fifth grave the team has dug since they started work.
Rasauka reckons it will be a busy day ahead for him and his colleagues.
“People are dying in numbers because of COVID-19,” he told Al Jazeera. “Three out of five burials here are COVID-19.”
Zimbabwe has since late December been experiencing a significant surge in new coronavirus infections and deaths. As at Tuesday, the country had registered 28,675 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 773 deaths – up from 14,084 and 369, respectively, on January 1.
The figures paint a grim picture. More people – a total of 404 – have lost their lives in the first 18 days of the year than the whole of 2020, with the weekly average tally of new infections now standing at about 760.
But some believe the official numbers do not reflect the true extent of the pandemic.
“They have not begun the process of mass testing and mass contact tracing so that they get a true outlook,” Sithabile Dewah, a human rights activist who in early January lost her brother-in-law to COVID-19, told Al Jazeera. “The statistics that they are releasing every day of COVID-19 patients – those who have died, tested positive and recovered – are not an actual reflection of the situation on the ground,” Dewah told Al Jazeera.
Wellex Tapera, a 40-year-old entrepreneur in Harare who lost her aunt to COVID-19, said she was only tested and confirmed positive after her death.
Resident Roy Musasiwa also queried the official coronavirus numbers, saying he struggled to get his son admitted to a hospital earlier this month.
“The situation is far worse,” he told Al Jazeera.
Government officials, however, rejected the claims. “Our figures are very accurate,” said spokesman Nick Mangwana.
Norman Marara, secretary of the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights, said the released COVID-19 figures were much lower than the actual cases. He added, however, this was “not intentional on the part of the government”, citing lags in data reporting including delays by “those in private practice” who do not alert authorities on time.
Still, the recent spike forced the government earlier this month to impose a 30-day lockdown to contain the spread of the virus that saw a nationwide curfew imposed, gatherings banned and non-essential businesses closed.
At Warren Hills cemetery, metal sheets used as makeshift tombstones to identify the graves show that the majority of the deceased died in the first half of the month, with some as recent as Monday.
When Al Jazeera visited the site, employees of a funeral home were frantically trying to secure a grave for a client.
“We were hoping to conduct burial today but we have been told that there is no grave available,” an employee of the company said.
Owing to an economic crisis characterised by stagnant salaries, foreign currency shortages, a rapidly weakening currency, low industrial production and rising poverty amid hyperinflation that has pushed food prices higher, an increasing number of families opt to bury their deceased at council-owned cemeteries.
This is because graves there are much cheaper, costing about 2,000 Zimbabwe dollars ($20) on the black market in contrast to private cemeteries where the fees go into hundreds of US dollars, in a country where a teacher earns a monthly salary equivalent to $50.
City of Harare spokesperson Innocent Ruwende contends burials at their two council-owned graveyards, Warren Hills and Granville, have increased in recent weeks.
“As of last year, we were burying 18 people [daily] but the numbers have increased in recent weeks. As of last week, we were burying around 45 people on average daily at our graveyards,” he told Al Jazeera.
Ruwende would not be drawn to comment on whether the jump was owing to COVID-19 deaths, referring all questions to the national task force on COVID-19.
The task force chair, Agnes Mahomva, could not be reached for comment.
Rasauka, the gravedigger, said there is “a backlog of people seeking to bury their dead” at Warren Hills cemetery. “Sometimes we refer them to other cemeteries like Granville.”
Ruwende said this was due to workforce shortages amid the pandemic.
“Ideally, we have 80 gravediggers and they should do 40 graves daily. Of late, some of them have also not been well. So that affects the number of available graves,” he said.
It is not just the cemeteries that are swamped – funeral homes have also been affected, with employees now taking longer to remove corpses from homes.
Tapera said her family had to wait seven hours for the funeral home staff to come and collect the body of her aunt.
“We were with her in the same room in the house with the body,” he told Al Jazeera.
Taka Svosve, general manager of the Zimbabwe Association of Funeral Assurers, alluded to “constraints” in the sector brought about by the recent spike in COVID-19 deaths.
“At the moment, funeral parlours are somehow managing despite the increasing constraints caused by the surge in COVID-19 deaths since the beginning of the year,” Svosve told Al Jazeera.
He said there was an urgent need to ensure there is enough infrastructure to deal with the consequences of the pandemic should things get worse.
“However, more planning in terms of infrastructure like mortuaries and even burial space need to be considered urgently since nobody knows when and how this will end,” Svosve said.
He said the government should look at strategically partnering with funeral parlours for related infrastructure development for “use in case the current situation develops into a catastrophe”.
Back at Warren Hills Cemetery, Prince Mupamombe, a 28-year-old flower vendor, said there has been increased traffic into the graveyard in the new year.
“We have seen a number of COVID-19 funerals come and go. Every day we see them come in and bury the dead,” he told Al Jazeera.
On some days, Mupamombe, who has been selling flowers at the cemetery for the past 10 years, has seen as many as 14 COVID-19 funeral processions in the cemetery.
“We can tell from the PPE clothing they wear,” he told Al Jazeera. “Last year, we would see only two to three funeral processions daily.”