Show me the manner in which a nation or a community
cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematics
exactness, the tender mercies of its people, their respect
for the law of the land, and their loyalties to high ideals
W E Gladstone, Prime Minister of England 1892-1894
The crucial importance of good forensic services to the criminal justice system cannot be overemphasised. Such services depend not only on the skills of pathologists who perform autopsies, but also on support staff whose tasks include the repair and safe care of corpses, and rendering assistance
to people facing the intensely painful task of identifying loved ones. There
has, however, been a failure to address serious and long-standing problems with mortuary services in KwaZulu-Natal and the present strike has seen the conduc of some staff at the Magwaza Maphalala (Gale) Street mortuary degenerate to depraved criminality.
A few years ago the Department of Health took over the
running of mortuaries from the police, and it was anticipated that the quality
of service would improve. Quite the reverse has happened, and the situation has deteriorated even further. Apart from lack of resources and poor maintenance, most of the problems are linked to the conduct of staff, who not only fail to do what is required of them (e.g. maintain hygienic standards, ensure that specimens are properly stored, and treat cadavers with dignity) but also refuse to comply with the instructions of pathologists who work in the mortuary under extremely difficult conditions. Staff reportedly come and go as they please and management appears non-existent. It also seems that international protocols for dealing with unidentified bodies are not being observed.
All these problems have been reported to the provincial Department of Health, but no constructive steps have been taken to address them, and to institute disciplinary procedures where necessary. They must shoulder the blame for employing people who are clearly unsuitable for this work in the first place, instead of people who had some training in the medical field. What is needed is technologists who understand the pivotal role of forensics, and are governed by a statutory body that imposes some sort of code of medical ethics on its members.
Bad as the pre-strike situation was, the inhuman conduct of
some of the employees who are currently out on strike is criminal. According to well informed sources :
– Staff members have threatened anyone still
working at the morgue with death
- Generators have been sabotaged and fridges
- Identification tags have been cut from bodies
and corpses mixed up
- Dissection tools used by pathologists are
- Death registers are missing
Such conduct speaks volumes about the contempt with which
some striking workers hold the dead, whose mortal remains have been entrusted to their care. They obviously lack any sense of the empathy needed when interacting with bereaved persons.
Forensic medicine relates to the scientific collection of
evidence, the integrity of which will be relied on in criminal proceedings
which may follow. The intentional destruction of this process is a criminal act
which not only undermines the inquest process, but will have a secondary effect of fuelling the burden of crime in this province. The Department of Health must accept liability for employing and retaining corrupt staff should any family member feel prejudiced by their deliberate actions.
The mortuary staff must not be allowed to return to their
jobs when the strike is over. The KZN Monitor calls on the Department of Health to suspend these striking workers pending a full, independent enquiry into the staffing of the mortuary, and the criminal incidents by strikers. Criminal investigations must run their course, and no effort must be spared in identifying those responsible for these heinous acts. These employees must no longer be allowed to handle human remains so, if necessary, they should be transferred elsewhere by the Department which has foolishly employed them – and failed to take steps to prevent these abuses.