On Wednesday, the first of a series of mass Covid-19 burials was held in Papua New Guinea, interring 54 victims whose bodies had gone unclaimed for months while the pandemic ravaged the under-resourced Melanesian nation.
Hospital and government officials called for the crisis ceremony after 300 dead piled up at the Port Moresby General Hospital mortuary, overwhelming a space designed to hold only 60.
Authorities had been storing some remains there since March, while they searched for relatives and raised funds to perform the funeral rites.
On the outskirts of Port Moresby, the country’s capital, a memorial service was held in Nine Mile Cemetery.
Masked officials methodically removed each of the sheet-clad remains from shipping containers and placed them in a rough wooden box erected by local locals, according to AFP correspondents on the scene.
The makeshift caskets were then put in a four-metre (13-foot) deep trench like Jenga bricks, some with names written on the lids.
There were about 40 people in attendance, including city hall staff, hospital and morgue officials, and a few journalists.
There were no family members in attendance.
In Papua New Guinea, funerals are a popular custom, and “Haus Krais” ceremonies might extend for days.
Even the most remote locales attract hundreds, if not thousands, of mourners.
Families, extended clans, and occasionally people from nearby villages gather for hours to mourn, howl, and chant in sorrow.
The coronavirus was found in 122 of the 300 persons who died at the Port Moresby General Hospital mortuary.
However, testing is inconclusive, and official figures do not reflect the scale of the pandemic situation in Papua New Guinea.
Officially, 35,000 cases have been detected in a population of over nine million people.
However, data from 700 clinics across the country revealed that 2.6 million people — over a quarter of the population — visited with flu or pneumonia-like symptoms between March 2020 and September 2021.