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  • Writer's picturePaula Fontenelle

Covid-19 has shattered the way we grieve

Remote communities are hit the hardest

In the second week of March, when the Coronavirus was widely spread in Brazil but few people knew, my friend Helenita took her father-in-law to the hospital. At the age of 91, Iwalty Tarcha was showing signs of dehydration and refused to eat. The doctors told her that he would need to stay for a few days due to his advanced age and apparent frailty.

Iwalty was diagnosed with pneumonia the following day but the doctors guaranteed the family that the disease was unrelated to Covid-19. Three days later, he was dead after a brief period of intubation.

Helenita knew that the virus was rampant in many hospitals of São Paulo, the state with the highest number of registered deaths in Brazil, so she decided to be cautious about the funeral. “We wanted to reduce the risks of contamination, so only three people attended,” she told me. On that same week, my friend, her husband, and daughter fell ill. It was during this time that they received a call from the doctor who had treated Iwalty informing them that his test for the Coronavirus had returned positive. He had actually been contaminated while in the hospital. By then, all of them were sick; her husband experienced the most serious symptoms, including two weeks of high fever and fatigue.

Photo: Paula Fontenelle
Photo: Paula Fontenelle

Helenita’s ordeal was not over though. Four days after the death of her father-in-law, her mother, who lived 260 miles from São Paulo and had been struggling with her health, also died. “Again, I could not go because we were all sick at the time and I didn’t want to pass it on to other members of the family. It was devastating for me because I could not attend either Iwalty’s burial or my own mother’s.”

In less than two weeks, Helenita experienced two rushed, nearly empty burials; both impacted by the restrictions imposed by Covid-19. She couldn’t say good-bye to her mother and no one had come because of the recent stay-at-home order issued by the state. “Most of our relatives were not even informed of her death until days later. One of the most difficult things for me was not being able to hug my friends and family,” she told me over the phone.

Stories like Helenita’s are happening every single day, in all corners of the world, but the grief these families are facing is radically different because they can’t count on the traditional rituals that mark the loss of a loved one. Not only that, but these deaths are occurring during a time of extreme fear and uncertainty, which adds layers of suffering to a moment that when mourners usually focus on finding ways to adapt to the recent loss.

Rituals have rich symbolic value. They provide family and friends a healing path that is communal in nature. These moments create an opportunity to acknowledge the death, to feel comforted by loved ones, to start the adaptation process, and to know you are not alone.

When you die by Covid-19, the opposite happens: funerals have limited attendance if any; no contact with the bodies is permitted; memorial services are discouraged, and even when they happen, the soothing effect of physical touch is not possible due to social distancing guidelines. When talking to the clinical social worker Jill Johnson-Young for my podcast, she reminded me that another compounding problem is the fact that family members are left behind without knowing exactly what happened to their loved ones, which often leads them to imagine the worst:

"It's leaving families with all the thoughts in their heads about what probably happened, and that's causing even more trauma for them because all they have is their imagination and all the stuff on the news and on on social media. The images are terrible. At the same time, they are hearing "this is not that dangerous, it's no big deal, it's just the flu, except that it's not because their loved ones are dying."

Photo: Katie Maehler

Rituals are also culture-specific and many communities have seen their traditions being ignored due to discrimination, poor access to health services, and many times, blatant disrespect by the authorities. In Brazil, traditional and indigenous populations have been hit hard by the pandemic, approximately twice the infection rates when compared to the national average.

One of these communities are the Yanomami, Indians who live in the rain forests and mountains of the Amazon River basin in northern Brazil, bordering Venezuela. For them, death is followed by a succession of rituals that include the public viewing of the body, its cremation, the distribution of the ashes among various members of the community — in some cases, the ashes are ingested — and the burning of all the possessions of the deceased.

For the Yanomami, it is extremely important that the ashes remain within their tribe as a form of respect for their shared history, but since the spread of Covid-19 in Brazil, their bodies are being sent to distant cemeteries and their families have not been permitted to attend the burials. This rupture in the way they grieve has provoked a further sense of alienation from a society that has historically deprived them of the basic rights most Brazilians hold.

This scenario has impacted not only the Yanomami but all the surrounding populations in the area, which has the highest contamination rates in the country. As a way to help contain the virus, a group of Brazilians, including the renowned photographer Sebastião Salgado has created a fund to guarantee medical treatment and humanitarian support to these vulnerable communities. “It is a sad irony that the populations who live in the Amazon forest are dying for lack of oxygen,” says Natalie Unterstell, co-founder of United for a living Amazon. The initiative will benefit 112 indigenous groups in the region; 9.166 have been infected by the virus; 378 have died. These individuals live in remote areas with little or no access to medical care.

Photo: Erik Jennings

According to Erik Jennings, a neurosurgeon who works with semi-isolated ethnic groups who live in the Amazon region, to some indigenous populations, Covid-19 has had the impact of genocide. Part of the problem is the fact that most of the resources are concentrated in large cities and hospitals, while small communities are left to their own devices.

The dire situation of these ethnic groups was brought to my attention by a friend who is involved with this project in Brazil. After talking to him, I decided to participate by helping them bring awareness to this health crisis so that they can reach their fundraising goals.

If you can, please donate to the cause.

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