A Brazilian gravedigger's daily odyssey

Manaus (Brazil) (AFP) –


Ulisses Xavier is used to seeing death up close. It comes with the territory when you're a gravedigger.

But it had never come at him at the speed and scale seen since Manaus, his hometown in the Brazilian Amazon, got swept up in the coronavirus pandemic.

"When I first saw how fast the number of burials was going up, I got scared," said Xavier, 52, who works at the public cemetery in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state in northwestern Brazil.

"Now I've gotten used to it. I just hope it will be over soon."

Before the pandemic, this city of 2.1 million people registered 30 deaths per day on average. Now, the number has risen to about 100.

Brazil is the hardest-hit Latin American country in the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 11,000 deaths so far. And Manaus is the Brazilian city with the highest mortality rate, with 680 deaths from 7,198 confirmed infections.

Xavier's work day has changed dramatically: long hours, mass graves instead of individual ones, protective gear.

After the hospital network in Manaus hit maximum capacity, leaving some suspected coronavirus victims to die at home, Xavier and his colleagues started digging trenches to bury multiple victims at once.

Other days, he digs individual graves, one after the other.

Working in the tropical heat, he is usually exhausted by number five, he says.

- Sacred routine -

He and his colleagues earn a little extra money making wooden crosses on the side, an option for mourning families that cannot afford a tombstone.

They paint each one sky-blue, with the deceased's name, dates and grave number in black.

Sales have doubled to about six per day since the start of the crisis.

With courage reminiscent of his namesake -- the hero of Homer's epic poem the Odyssey -- Xavier says he is not afraid for himself, even though he has lost friends to the pandemic.

"I'm afraid of bringing the virus home," he told AFP however.

He has developed a sacred routine to keep his family safe after he arrives home on his bicycle each day.

"As soon as I get back to the house, I strip down, take a shower, wash my clothes. I only give my daughter and granddaughters a kiss after that," he said.

His brother, Hercules, 53, has symptoms resembling COVID-19, and suspects he may have it. The brothers, who are also neighbors, now greet each other only through the wall between their houses.

Ulisses' wife, also 53, has meanwhile moved out of the house temporarily to avoid getting sick.