SAO PAULO — Brazil’s biggest metropolis has an unorthodox plan to free up space at its graveyards during the coronavris pandemic: digging up the bones of people buried in the past and storing their bagged remains in large metal containers.

Sao Paulo’s municipal funeral service said in a statement Friday that the remains of people who died at least three years ago will be exhumed and put in numbered bags, then stored temporarily in 12 storage containers it has purchased. The containers will be delivered to several cemeteries within 15 days, the statement said.

Sao Paulo is one of the COVID-19 hot spots in Latin America’s hardest-hit nation, with 5,480 deaths as of Thursday in the city of 12 million people. And some health experts are worried about a new surge now that a decline in intensive care bed occupancy to about 70% prompted Mayor Bruno Covas to authorize a partial reopening of business this week. The result has been crowded public transport, long lines at malls and widespread disregard for social distancing.

Many health experts predict the peak of Brazil’s pandemic will arrive in August, having spread from the big cities where it first appeared into the nation’s interior. The virus has so far killed almost 42,000 Brazilians, and Brazil passed the United Kingdom on Friday to become the country with the world’s second highest death toll.

Dr. Michael Ryan, the World Health Organization’s emergencies chief, said Friday that the situation in Brazil remains “of concern,” although acknowledged that intensive care bed occupancy rates are now below 80% in most areas of the country.

“Overall the health system is still coping in Brazil, although, having said that, with the sustained number of severe cases that remains to be seen,” Ryan said. “Clearly the health system in Brazil across the country needs significant support in order to sustain its effort in this regard. But the data we have at the moment supports a system under pressure, but a system still coping with the number of severe cases.”


The experts aren’t the only ones with concerns.

At Sao Paulo’s biggest cemetery, Vila Formosa, Adenilson Costa was among workers in blue protective suits digging up old graves Friday. He said their work has only grown more arduous during the pandemic, and as he removed bones from unearthed coffins, he said he fears what is to come.

“With this opening of malls and stores we get even more worried. We are not in the curve; we are in the peak and people aren’t aware,” Costa said. “This isn’t over. Now is the worrisome moment. And there are still people out.”

In April, gravediggers at Vila Formosa buried 1,654 people, up more than 500 from the previous month. Numbers for May and June aren’t yet available.

Before the pandemic, Costa said, he and colleagues would exhume remains of about 40 coffins per day if families stopped paying required fees for the plots. In recent weeks that figure has more than doubled.

Remains stored in the metal containers will eventually be moved to a public ossuary, according to the statement from the city’s funeral office. Its superintendent, Thiago Dias da Silva, told the Globo network that containers have been used before and they are more practical and affordable than building new ossuaries.

Work has been so busy in Sao Paulo cemeteries since the outbreak began that one of Costa’s relatives was buried only a few meters (yards) from where he was working one day — without him even knowing. “I only found out the next day,” he said.

Three other people he knew have also died from the virus.

“People say nothing scares gravediggers. COVID does,” Costa said.

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