Public agents tell how they helped families of victims of Covid-19 at the time a state of public calamity was decreed in Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas, and the fifth Brazilian city with the highest number of deaths from the disease.
“Yesterday we had 14 funeral services and we didn’t get any cases of covid-19”, said Lourdes Rodrigues, 64 years old, manager of SOS Funeral de Manaus. The SOS Funeral in Manaus, is a public service that coordinate the burials and supports the families of victims. She spoke relieved about the situation of the fifth Brazilian city with the highest number of deaths from the coronavirus. According to the Amazonas Health Surveillance Foundation (FVS-AM), since the beginning of the crisis in March, until November 17, there had been 3007 deaths registered in Manaus alone, a city with 2 million inhabitants.
“The normal [funeral] service here was 8 to 14 deaths a day. During the peak of the pandemic we had a day with 105 deaths,” she says. Lourdes was part of a task force that brought together about 80 women led by the Municipal Secretariat for Women, Social Assistance and Citizenship (Semasc) to assist families victims of Covid, offer the services of transport and burial of the bodies, and ensure secure conditions of work to the employees of the city’s funerary system. “We came together to alleviate people’s suffering”. This task force was formed in March, when it was declared a state of public calamity in Manaus and in the state of Amazonas.
The worst time was when I used to receive daily calls from hospitals. There was a nurse, Professor Marcos, who used to call me and say ‘Dona Lourdes, send the car here [Hospital Dom Lúcio], we have 16 bodies’. Then he called me again, after about 10, 15 minutes: ‘We have 28 bodies’. Then another hospital would call: ‘We have 8 bodies’. Then everyone started calling: Hospital 28 de Agosto, Hospital Danilo Correia, UPAS (Emergency Care Unities). There were 2 cell phones and the phone here at the office. And all congested. I couldn’t handle it. Until people didn’t even care anymore. They would send a direct message to the driver to go pick up the bodies.
As I am a risk group, I had to work from home. At that time, EPI [Personal Protective Equipment] started to be lacking. Things we’ve always had in stock! That’s when I started sewing masks for my people [SOS Funeral employees]. In two days I made 400 masks. In addition to my working in SOS management. We didn’t sleep.
In early October we managed to breathe again. Now doctors are better prepared. The mortality rate fell. Yesterday we had 14 daily services and we didn’t get any Covid. Today [November 18] there were 3.
There are people who are not taking care yet. I think we need a lockdown. It is useless to open until 22 hours. Isn’t the Covid around until 10 pm? Does the virus rest? They release the bars until 10 pm and people flock to the places. Then they go home and put their elders at risk. It’s no use.
I spoke with Lourdes last November. She passed away from Covid-19 past February.
Sitting in one of the SOS Funeral service rooms, 6 members of the team recalled the moments when they only had each other. “People who knew that we worked here with funerals wanted distance. Everyone was afraid of becoming infected”, says Maria Lenise Trindade, Director of the Department of Basic Social Protection (DPSB). “Women are more sensitive, they have a mother’s charitable spirit. But here, in our daily work, we didn’t cry in front of people. We went outside, under the tree, and wept hidden. Because we couldn’t take the suffering of families”.
Maria Lenise led the task force where decisions had to be made overnight. “We had never been through this before. I tried to put myself in people’s shoes,” she says. “There was a girl who came here and said ‘I would really like my mother’s coffin to cross the street from my house’. I said ‘okay’. And everyone said ‘no’, because we had a fleet with many coffins. But It insisted and said to the driver ‘go, you will pass this street here’. He came back crying and told me: ‘Today you touched me. I passed the street and the whole neighborhood was at the gates praying’.”
One difficult moment for the team was recruitment. “I was given the role of recruiting people. For example, relocating people from other sectors to provide support for SOS Funeral, which at that time was what we needed most,” recalls Jucimaria Menezes, Head of Division. “I received people crying, they would say ‘don’t do this to me, don’t put me in that sector, I have a family’. Then I had to explain that we provide personal protective equipment and training. That there was no risk. Even so, people were very afraid.”
A few months after the peak of the disease in the capital of Amazonas, despite the quieter moment, the team maintains the protocols and the awareness that the war is not over yet. “We are still in the pandemic. Nobody left the pandemic. It is important to say. But one thing is certain: we discovered that we are very strong women. We were afraid. But the fear was small in the face of the whole situation”, concludes Jucimaria Menezes.
Amanda Sarkis, 33, is a municipal technician and worked on the front line of the operation set up by SOS Funeral, in Manaus, during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis.
“I just wanted to be safe, with my mom, like everyone else was. But, at that moment, our activity started to be seen as essential. We had to be on the front line. I didn’t drink water at work, I didn’t eat, afraid of catching the virus. I used to literally bathe myself and the other employees here with hand sanitizer. I had to separate from my mother, she went to live in another place. I was very alone. My job was to recruit people. I had to reach out to them and say “the work is carrying bodies.” Nobody wanted to do that. There came a time when we couldn’t find anyone.
“I saw my colleagues here at SOS Funeral hugging families who lost loved ones to the disease. I was very anxious. Afraid to infect myself. I looked at my colleagues and thought ‘why are they not afraid and I am?’, ‘Why are they doing it and I am not?’. That’s when I started to understand what it is to be a public agent. I came to my boss and said ‘I already know what it’s like to be a public agent’. It hurts to understand that. Because deep down you want to be safe. But here you work to help others 24 hours a day.”
Calesa, 45, is a social worker on the front line of the operation set up by SOS Funeral, in Manaus, to welcome the families of the victims of Covid-19.
At first it was not mandatory to wear a mask. So I went to the supermarket and ended up getting infected. I was hospitalized. Then isolated from my son and my husband. There is nothing worse than being in the same house and not being able to get close to the ones you love. What I had left to do was to watch television and see how Manaus was doing.
When I returned to work, the most difficult moment was seeing the families’ suffering. There was a crowd outside [in front of the SOS funeral]. Everyone hugged and cried. At the same time, we had to orient the people towards social distancing. It is very difficult for us. I’m a social worker, I’m used to being close to people. But I couldn’t for safety reasons.
I am very grateful to God for being alive. And for helping families in this difficult time.
Jucimaria, 44, is Head of Division of Social Assistance Services and worked on the front line of the operation set up by SOS Funeral, in Manaus, during the peak of the COVID-19 crisis.
We are still in the pandemic. Nobody left the pandemic. It is important to say. But one thing is certain: we have found that we are very strong women. We were afraid. But the fear was small in the face of the whole situation.
I was given the role of recruiting people. For example, relocating people from other sectors to provide support for SOS Funeral, which at that time was what most needed it. I received people crying, they said ‘don’t do this to me, don’t put me in that sector, I have a family, I don’t want to be infected’. So I explained that I had safety equipment, training. That there was no risk. Even so, people were very afraid.
I learned to value my coworkers even more. Valuing life.
Inaie, 47, is a social worker and worked on the front line of the operation set up by SOS Funeral, in Manaus, to welcome the families of the victims of Covid-19.
I was afraid and I had faith at the same time. When the Mayor issued the decree [public calamity in Manaus], many people still stayed here, it was not possible to work from home. And I said to them ‘we are not going to get infected, let’s be strong’ And me telling them [SOS funeral staff] this, it strengthened me, you know?
We lost a lot of friends. There is a lot of sadness. But I tell you something, this year I got stronger, more supportive. Wanting to help people more. Because in our profession, there is fear, of course, but because you help people, that strengthens you.
Maria Lenise, 53, is the Director of the Department of Basic Social Protection (DPSB) and worked on the front line of the operation set up by SOS Funeral, in Manaus, to serve and welcome the families of the victims of COVID-19.
“At that time all the international press came over to Manaus because, unfortunately, you know, we became the epicenter of the pandemic. It is not a good thing. But there was a great recognition of our work. Our assistance team is mostly composed of women. All the directors are women. We had 80 women involved. They worked behind the scenes: purchasing PPE, organizing PPE, logistics, recruiting staff. For example, we had to hire people to carry coffins, because our staff couldn’t handle the quantity anymore.
The woman is more sensitive, she has a mother’s charitable spirit. But here, in our daily work, we didn’t cry in front of people. We went outside, under the tree, and wept crying. Because we couldn’t take the suffering of families.
The worst part was going without seeing my mom for three months. Here, one comforted the other. Because who knew we were from SOS Funeral didn’t even want to come close for fear of being contaminated.
There was a girl who came here and said: ‘I would really like my mother’s coffin to cross the street from my house’. I said: ‘ok’. And everyone said ‘no’, because we had a fleet with many coffins, they thought I was cray. But I said to the driver: ‘go, you will pass this street here’. He came back crying and told me: ‘Today you touched me. I passed in the street and the whole neighborhood was at the gates praying. ‘”
I hope that better days will come. We continue with a mask, with alcohol, our life is not normal. And the biggest fear remains of infecting others, our friends and family. We realize that we are nothing, we don’t take anything from this life. Such a small virus wiped us out. “
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