Court orders autopsies as mortuary strike continues


FILE image of the mortuary section of Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg. The business of funerals has become increasingly competitive with reports surfacing of undertakers going to extraordinary and unscrupulous lengths to secure corpses.

JOHANNESBURG – The Gauteng health department needs to get tough with forensic officers striking illegally, and an urgent court order should be brought against the illegal strikers who “disrespect the dead”, the Democratic Alliance said on Sunday.

Desperate families had secured court orders to force postmortems at Gauteng state mortuaries so that they could get bodies for burial as the strike by about 180 forensic assistants dragged on with no end in sight, DA spokesman Jack Bloom said.

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“I know of three court orders brought by Muslim families who are religiously required to bury within 24 hours of death. It is tragic that the court has to step in because of the pathetic mishandling of this strike by the Gauteng health department,” he said.

Families were hopeful that the backlog of more than 200 bodies would be speedily cut when military health personnel were brought in to assist last week, but this turned out to be only seven people.

Pathologists heroically worked without assistants over the long weekend, but new bodies were coming in all the time and they could not cope. As there was no fridge space, bodies were being piled on top of each other.

Unions claimed that the assistants were not striking but were “working to rule” by doing only what was in their job descriptions, but this was false.

“I have established that their duties explicitly include the following as contained in a recent job advert for a grade one forensic pathology officer: ‘Assist in rendering an efficient forensic autopsy process (which includes evisceration, scribing, and typing) in accordance with set standards and guidelines by assisting the forensic pathologists in autopsies’,” Bloom said.

“The department needs to get tough with forensic officers who are striking illegally, some of whom have incited angry relatives against pathologists who fear for their safety.”

The department had already agreed to danger pay and to the reversal of the occupational specific dispensation (OSD) which was disastrously implemented in 2009 and resulted in a pay cut for forensic officers, he said.

There was no reason for this strike as remaining grievances could be addressed in the bargaining chamber, but the problem was that the department had low credibility because of previously unfulfilled promises in this matter.

“The ANC is weak on unions because they cannot afford to offend an ally. Premier David Makhura has been inexplicably missing from this crisis. He needs to co-ordinate efforts to ensure that security is established at the 10 mortuaries and that other health workers are used to assist pathologists in speeding up autopsies.

“An urgent court order should be brought against the illegal strikers who disrespect the dead and are causing incredible anguish to relatives waiting more than 10 days in some instances to bury loved ones,” Bloom said.

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