MMen in white protective suits heave a coffin from the wagon and carry it to the freshly dug grave. Few relatives watch as it is quickly sunk into the reddish earth. The men bring wreaths. The security protocols do not allow an eulogy or a silent pause to say goodbye. The procedure takes ten minutes, then the relatives have to leave. The protective masks soaked up their tears, but not their pain. Sadness, horror and resignation speak in their eyes.
The scene repeats every ten minutes in block 68 of the Vila Formosa cemetery in São Paulo, the largest cemetery in Latin America. One grave after the other is shoveled until the row is full. Then the next. New coffins arrive on small transport vehicles, almost in column traffic. At a safe distance from each other, groups of relatives wait until the men in protective suits have done their work and it is their turn.
“It’s horrific,” says Eugenia. She is one of the freelance gardeners who tend graves. “It doesn’t stop.” Eugenia has been working in the cemetery for five years and has seen countless funerals during that time. But with the pandemic, the ceremonies have become surreal. And never before had there been so many. “They come from all over the city. There is still space here. “
Almost 300,000 pandemic deaths
The Vila Formosa cemetery, which extends over an area of almost 80 hectares, is one of 22 public cemeteries and at the same time one of the largest green spaces in the metropolis of São Paulo. In the roughly 70 years of its existence, more than 1.5 million corpses have been buried here – people who cannot afford an expensive burial in one of the private cemeteries. Many graves are overgrown because nobody cares anymore.
According to the city council, the average of funerals across São Paulo is 240 per day in summer and around 300 in winter. As the pandemic has progressed, the number has increased significantly. In January and February, Vila Formosa alone held an average of 45 funerals a day, almost twice as many as before the pandemic.
In total, the pandemic has killed nearly 300,000 people since it broke out in Brazil. In the past few days, the number of cases has skyrocketed again. Every fourth corona victim in the world came from Brazil in the past few days. The weekly average is now more than 2,200 deaths each day. A highly contagious mutant of the coronavirus from Amazonia has spread across the country. She meets millions of Brazilians who cannot afford to stay at home because otherwise they will lose their livelihoods. They have not received any government aid since January. Now the Congress has approved four more monthly payments of the equivalent of 26 to 56 euros. The minimum salary is around 165 euros.
Bolsonaro continues to deny that the virus is dangerous
Economic pressures are not the only reason why Brazil has become a hotspot for the pandemic and a breeding ground for mutants of the virus. When asked about eleven months ago how many victims could be expected in Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro replied, “I’m not a gravedigger, right?” And the next day he said that it was not worth running away from the virus. 70 percent of Brazilians would be infected anyway. Today Brazil has ten times as many deaths every day as it did then. But Bolsonaro continues to deny that the virus is dangerous. And many Brazilians are following his example. The isolation measures imposed by the governors are supported by a majority, but only followed half-heartedly.
They would be more necessary than ever. The hospitals across the country have long since reached their capacity limits. In the coming days, there is a risk of running out of medication that is necessary for artificial respiration. Oxygen is also becoming scarce. And because of the congestion in hospitals, not only corona diseases, but also many other medical complications are fatal.
One of the victims of the second wave is one of Eugenia’s aunt, the cemetery gardener. Despite her work on the graves, the pandemic has long been an invisible ghost to her, she says. “But when it hits someone in your family, you know that the pandemic is far from over. It’s an oppressive feeling. “
The mood in Brazil is changing. The uncertainty turns into fear. Four out of five Brazilians see the pandemic out of control, according to a survey. More than half say they are very afraid of being infected.
Not far from the burials at the Vila Formosa cemetery, a weathered concrete cross tower juts out. Behind it is Block 70. The noise from hand mowers and an excavator is getting louder. The scent of cut grass and damp earth is in the air. More graves have been dug here since the early hours of the morning. There will be more than 100 in the end. Soon they too will be filled with coffins and red earth by the men in the white protective suits.