By Miguel Lo Bianco and Agustin Geist
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Ernesto Fabián Aguirre, a gravedigger in the Memorial cemetery in the suburbs of Argentine capital Buenos Aires, feels like he is going into battle every day as the country’s coronavirus death toll mounts amid a new wave of infections.
Argentina’s gravediggers are threatening to strike over demands that cemetery workers burying the dead are vaccinated against COVID-19, a test for the South American country’s government which has faced hold-ups to its vaccine roll-out.
“We face a daily war in this place,” Aguirre told Reuters. “The fear is real, that’s why we want the vaccine to arrive for everyone so that, at least, we can live a couple more years,” he said with a wry laugh.
Argentina is seeing a sharp second wave of the pandemic, with the average daily death toll hitting a record at over 450 lives lost a day. The country has recorded over 70,000 deaths since the pandemic hit. Daily new cases now average just below 25,000, prompting calls for tighter restrictions.
Meanwhile the country’s inoculation campaign has only fully inoculated 4.5% of the population and 18% has received at least one dose, according to a Reuters analysis. At an average of 132,000 doses given per day, it will take another 69 days to inoculate another 10% of the population.
Argentina’s union representing cemetery, crematorium and funeral workers has threatened a national strike if it does not reach a deal with the government on vaccines. The strike could start this week after a government-enforced conciliation period ends.
The burial protocol for COVID-19 victims involves disinfecting and handling the coffin, where workers have to wear protective gear including body suits, face masks, goggles and gloves.
“It is a very hard work every day and I would like if it could be possible for us to be vaccinated because each day we have to take good care of ourselves and the COVID-19 issue is raging,” said Juan Polig, the cemetery’s manager.
Polig explained that beyond the physical risk of infection, workers had to deal with the emotional pain of consoling relatives and having to restrict how many family members can visit the grave due to COVID protocol measures.
“It’s hugely sad and complicated,” he said.
(Reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco and Agustín Geist; Writing by Eliana Raszewski; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Lisa Shumaker)