Sunday, May 24, 2020
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LATIN AMERICA | 02-04-2020 18:10

Latin America's biggest cemetery braces for impact

Brazil's Vila Formosa cemetery, the largest in Latin America with an area of 780,000 square metres and where more than 1.5 million people are buried, has had a 30% increase in burials since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The biggest cemetery in Latin America, a seemingly endless stretch of graves on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, is adapting to the new funeral rites of our times: six-minute burials, no wakes, no hugs.

And it is bracing for things to get a lot worse.

On a recent afternoon at Vila Formosa cemetery, coffins were arriving so quickly the grave-diggers had to ask mourners to wait.

Mourners with "D3" marked on their loved one's death certificates – for suspected or confirmed cases of the new coronavirus – were ordered to keep funeral parties to less than 10 mourners, no open caskets or embracing allowed.

Some, unable to hold back, collapsed into their loved ones' arms.

"My grandmother had the symptoms and got tested, but they told us the result would take another two weeks," said Ricardo Santos, who held a small, quick ceremony for 92-year-old Regina Almeida.

Her closed coffin was wrapped in a green cloth in a bid to avoid spreading the virus.

Burials took six minutes total, from the moment the hearse was opened to the wreath of flowers laid on the closed tomb.

Toiling under a hot sun in white protective suits, masks and gloves, grave-diggers lowered four coffins into a single grave in about half an hour: one confirmed and three suspected COVID-19 victims.

Genilton de Santana was burying his 77-year-old father, Jose, with a white mask on his face and a lone friend.

"Cause of death to be determined, awaiting exams," said the death certificate.

"Show people that and see if they start to understand how serious this is," said an enraged De Santana, with tears in his eyes.

Deadly 'little flu'

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly minimised the pandemic, comparing COVID-19 to a "little flu," warning against "hysteria" and chastising local authorities for closing businesses and schools.

That goes against the containment recommendations of the World Health Organisation and the far-right leader's own government.

Paradoxically, the federal government this week authorised burials without a death certificate in exceptional cases, anticipating a surge in funerals even as the president downplayed the virus.

The coronavirus pandemic is probably just getting started in Brazil, the hardest-hit country in Latin America, with 6,836 cases and 241 deaths so far.

Those numbers have been rising fast. Authorities expect the worst will only arrive between late April and June.

'Awaiting exams'

Vila Formosa is already feeling the pressure.

The cemetery stretches as far as the eye can see on the east side of Sao Paulo. It's more than 750,000 square meters (185 acres) are estimated to hold 1.5 million people's remains.

"We usually bury about 45 people a day. But last week there were 12 to 15 more per day," a grave digger told AFP as he dug a long line of plots in the deep red earth of the cemetery's oldest wing, getting ready for the next day's burials.

"It's a lot worse than what people are seeing on the news."

São Paulo, a sprawling city of 12 million people, is the epicenter of the outbreak in Latin America, with nearly 3,000 cases so far.

Experts say the real number is probably much higher.

Preparing for a surge in burials, the city has hired 220 temporary workers for its 22 municipal cemeteries.

The reinforcements were badly needed: the city's usual brigade of 257 grave-diggers has been diminished by 60 percent, many of them in self-isolation because they are at high risk for the new coronavirus.

São Paulo city, which usually purchases 6,000 coffins every six months for public funeral homes, ordered 8,000 more in March alone.

by Paula Ramon, Agence France-Presse

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