The cold hits you first. Then comes the smell.
Inside a refrigerated shipping container are 17 plastic-wrapped corpses, each bearing a yellow label reading “highly contagious.”
The 12-metre (40-foot) steel box has been installed at Johannesburg morgue to help it cope with a rising tide of Covid deaths.
The container can store up to 40 corpses, keeping them at a constant zero degrees Celsius (32 degrees Fahrenheit).
“We have seen an increase of around 40 percent (in corpses) across the country,” said spokesman Marius du Plessis of AVBOB, a leading funeral and burial service provider in the country.
South Africa is the continent’s worst-hit country in the pandemic, with more than 1.4 million coronavirus cases and 40,800 deaths.
It was already struggling to beat back infections when they surged to unprecedented levels this month after scientists detected a new virus variant widely believed to be more contagious.
To help store the influx of bodies — and ensure Covid-19 victims are separated from others — AVBOB has distributed 22 containers normally used for transporting goods to its 250 South African morgues.
– Quick turnover –
At a funeral home in the administrative capital Pretoria, an undertaker ties a third layer of plastic around a corpse sent that morning from a coronavirus hospital ward.
Only the feet, arms and head can be distinguished of the tightly wrapped bundle lying on a stainless steel table, surrounded by white-tiled walls.
The body must be buried soon.
“Covid bodies can be kept for seven days maximum,” facility manager Naomi Van der Heever said.
The surrounding refrigerated rooms are almost full, with 200 bodies waiting to be buried or cremated. More than half succumbed to the virus.
“They have to go quick, it’s protocol,” said Van der Heever.
“With turnover, we have avoided full capacity.”
– Coffins in demand –
Coffin makers are also feeling the strain.
“I can’t take any more orders,” repeats the secretary of Johannesburg manufacturer Enzo Wood every time she answers the phone.
More than 100 workers have been labouring non-stop since the early morning, spraying sawdust across the factory floor.
The noise is deafening as machines turn relentlessly for eight hours a day, churning out dozens of wooden planks.
It then takes only 20 minutes to assemble a coffin.
Enzo Wood is now working at maximum capacity, producing 300 coffins per day. Orders fly off the warehouse shelves, making it impossible to build up stock.
Sales manager Kasie Pillay noted that demand for “oversize” boxes had increased the most. Evidence suggests that overweight people and those with chronic diseases such as diabetes are more at risk from Covid-19.
However, costs have also risen, making it difficult to work with quality wood and materials.
“Some are trying to take advantage of this period, some prices have increased,” Pillay said. “The handles on the boxes for example.”
Coffins are a symbolic investment for mourning families in South Africa, where funerals are pricey ceremonies marked with week-long vigils, decor and catering.
Some of Enzo Wood’s fanciest coffins can sell for up to 6500 rand ($426).
But priorities have changed during the pandemic.
“The undertakers are no longer interested in what they get as long as they get something to bury the Covid patients,” Pillay said.