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Brazil's biggest cemetery races to keep up with virus

Employees bury the coffin of a person who died from COVID-19 at the Vila Formosa cemetery, in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 20, 2020
Employees bury the coffin of a person who died from COVID-19 at the Vila Formosa cemetery, in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil on May 20, 2020 NELSON ALMEIDA AFP
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Sao Paulo (AFP)

The day after Brazil registered a record 1,179 coronavirus deaths in 24 hours, Sao Paulo grave digger Moises Francisco notched a bleak milestone of his own.

Francisco works at Vila Formosa, the biggest cemetery in Latin America, a seemingly endless field of graves on the east side of Sao Paulo.

In normal times, he usually has about 15 bodies waiting for him when he gets to work at 8:00 am, he said.

On Wednesday, the day after Brazil's death toll leapt by more than 1,000 in a day for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began, there were 33 bodies waiting to be buried.

A troubling surge in coronavirus deaths in Brazil is keeping the crew at Vila Formosa busy.

"We've been working 12-hour days, burying them one after the other. It doesn't stop," said one, wearing a white protective suit, mask and plastic face shield to protect himself from the virus.

In the background, backhoes rumbled and shovels clanked as his colleagues scrambled to keep up with the crush of new corpses in Sao Paulo, the epicenter of the pandemic in Brazil.

"We used to handle an average of 30 to 35 burials a day. On a busy day 45. Now we are burying 60 a day," said James Alan, supervisor of one team of grave diggers.

- 'Can't be too careful' -

More than 290,000 people in Brazil have been infected with the new coronavirus -- the third-highest number in the world -- and nearly 19,000 have died.

Experts say under-testing means the real figures are probably much higher.

Even as other hard-hit countries begin easing out of lockdown, Brazil is still bracing for things to get worse: the outbreak here is not expected to peak until June.

At the outset of the pandemic, Sao Paulo hired 220 temporary workers as reinforcements for its 22 municipal cemeteries.

At Vila Hermosa, which spans 750,000 square meters (185 acres) and holds the remains of an estimated 1.5 million people, the grave diggers nervously battle the clock as they work the deep red earth.

Carlos Gomes, 22, head of the team that transports the bodies marked "D3" -- suspected or confirmed coronavirus cases -- was pulling on a second pair of protective gloves.

"You can't be too careful. No use pretending life is normal," he said.

"This virus knows no age, we see that here every day. It can claim anybody."

Burials for COVID-19 victims retain little of the usual funeral rituals.

There are no wakes, and the bodies are interred in less than five minutes.

"They don't even let the families dress them. They wrap them in three bags at the hospital," said Flavia Dias, who was accompanying a friend whose father died of the virus.

Only five mourners are allowed at a time.

Sometimes no one comes at all.

"That doesn't happen often, but we're starting to see it," said one grave digger as he took a cigarette break.

- 'This is real' -

Sao Paulo state, which has registered nearly 70,000 coronavirus cases and more than 5,000 deaths, has drawn far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's ire for closing non-essential businesses and ordering residents to stay home.

Bolsonaro, who has compared the virus to a "little flu," says such measures are needlessly hurting the economy.

"The treatment can't be worse than the disease," he has said.

His stance has turned the medical battle against the virus into a political one in Brazil.

"I thought the media were exaggerating, that this whole thing was about making Bolsonaro look bad, that it didn't really exist," said Alina da Silva, 37.

She was burying her 69-year-old father, who died of COVID-19 after three weeks in the hospital.

"But let me tell you, when the virus hits you at home, you know it's real," she said through sobs.

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