This text is by Lucas Veloso. It is published here through a content sharing partnership between Global Voices and Agência Mural.
Open graves, coffins and tears of relatives are part of the work routine of James Alan Gomes, a resident of Cidade Tiradentes, east of São Paulo. He is one of the more than 400 gravediggers who work in the municipal public cemeteries of the state capital.
James has been working as a gravedigger in São Paulo for more than five years, a job in which prejudice is a characteristic brand. “There are people who value it today, seeing that our work has increased, but there are others who avoid coming because they think we are contaminated,” he says of the increase in burials by COVID-19.
In the largest Brazilian city, the pandemic of the new coronavirus had claimed the lives of 6,454 people until June 21, and it is still being investigated whether another 5,881 deaths were caused by the disease, bringing the number to more than 11,000. Currently, Brazil is the second country with the most deaths from the pandemic, with a total of 43,000.
The numbers directly impact the lives of those who work with death every day, like gravediggers. In Vila Nova Cachoeirinha, north of São Paulo, Geraldo * says that he has always suffered prejudice for working in cemeteries, but that the situation worsened with the pandemic. “I always had various comments, but now it's more,” he says.
In addition to prejudice, the amount of work has also been an extra challenge. “The routine is difficult because of the increase in burials, it becomes more exhausting for us,” says James. “We always had a hectic routine, but it increased with COVID-19.”
The burial agent works in the largest cemetery in Latin America, Vila Formosa, in the east of the city. Due to the increase in demand, 8.00 new trenches were dug at the site since April 19 (the prefecture implanted 5,000 more graves than the other public cemeteries).
According to the prefecture, nearly 2,000 ditches were dug in the Vila Nova Cachoeirinha cemetery alone, and in São Luís, in the southern area, about 3,000. Another modification was the burial capacity, which was expanded to 400 per day. According to the historical average there are 240 burials per day in summer and 300 in winter.
James also feels prejudice from families who lost loved ones at the time. Many lament the lack of care of family members with the disease. “Here I hear of many (families) who died because they did not take the pandemic seriously,” he says.
He recalls that the saddest day was when he identified a father who had buried his nine-month-old daughter, and two weeks later he returned to bury his wife. Both deaths were from COVID-19.
In addition to everything, the risks of his work generate a lot of suspicion. “As much as we use personal protective equipment, we can become contaminated by carelessness,” he said.
The aunt of the independent worker Ronaldo Cavalcante, 43, a resident of Jardim Real, in Grajaú, in the southern area of São Paulo, was one of thousands of victims of the new coronavirus in Brazil. At 81, he died after 11 days after the first symptoms of the disease.
The diagnosis was slow to appear, according to the nephew. “I was old and had health problems. He felt bad and went to the hospital. There they saw nothing different and returned home. Then it got worse and she went to another hospital, there they saw that she was infected, ”she recalls.
The time of mourning was more painful with burial protection measures. “The person was unable to receive visits. Later, all that is difficult for the family ”, he maintains.
In the city of São Paulo, the funeral services began to have a series of measures adopted to avoid contagion. Access to the wake rooms was limited to a maximum of 10 people. The duration of the process is limited to one hour, to avoid crowding.
Since March 30, confirmed or suspected victims of COVID-19 have been wrapped in a waterproof plastic sack, which is placed in the hospital, with the aim of giving greater security to gravediggers, drivers and other workers who may have access to bodies.
Sad about his aunt's death, Ronaldo says that people are skeptical of the severity of the illness. “This is very serious. Now, for example, we are going to have to test the rest of the family to see if someone did not get it. ”
The epidemic forced the prefecture to increase the number of professionals working for the emergency. In the first week of April, 220 people went to work in cemeteries.
According to the São Paulo Municipal Workers Union (Sindesp), the city had fewer gravediggers than necessary. They were close to 200, when in reality they needed at least 350. With the pandemic, the number was exceeded with contractors.
In São Paulo, to work as a gravedigger it is necessary to appear in a public competition, and have at least a complete primary education. The starting salary ranges from 775 to 1,100 reais (between $ 145 and 206), and can go up to 1,500 reais (about $ 280) for an eight-hour day. They say that there are days when they work more hours due to demand.
With the pandemic, Manoel Noberto Pereira, director of the union, says that the guild's main demand is survival in the face of a threatening virus.
Safety equipment such as aprons, gloves, and masks are essential. “Our main concern is with the security teams to be able to provide the service to the population,” he said.
For him, the situation in other South American countries made São Paulo treat the case as an emergency. In Ecuador, in April, dozens of bodies of COVID-19 patients scattered through the streets traveled around the world. Guayaquil, the most affected city, received cardboard boxes to try to respond to the increase in demand caused by the pandemic.
Manoel says the mobilization of the unions was important for the authorities to deliver the equipment to the workers to carry out their work, despite the stigma. “The prejudice towards us is old, but it came back more strongly with obscurantism and the lack of information to the population about our work,” he defines.
* The name was changed at the request of the interviewee.