Cairo's City of the Dead. Picture: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS
Cairo's City of the Dead. Picture: WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Cairo — It is a Friday morning in Egypt’s City of the Dead, the day of the week when families usually visit cemeteries to remember their deceased loved ones.

But these days there are barely any visitors in the vast Cairo cemetery, which stretches over 6.5km and where tens of thousands of people have been living and working among the tombs for decades.

Fearful of catching the novel coronavirus, many Egyptians are staying away from public places such as cemeteries, cutting off an essential source of income for the workers who rely on donations from the families of the dead to make a living.

“Life is rapidly changing here in the cemeteries,” said Am Ahmed, a gravedigger who has been living in the City of the Dead — known in Egypt as el-Qarafa — for more than 30 years.

He still gets paid for the job of burying the dead, but that income alone is not enough to support his family, he said. “We used to get money and food from people who visit the cemeteries. But now as everyone is afraid there are almost no visits.” 

Informal workers across the world are highly vulnerable to the economic effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, as people stay home either by choice or by government decree, say labour rights groups such as the Egyptian Trade Union Federation (ETUF).

About 40% of Egypt’s total workforce of 30-million people works in the informal sector, according to Egypt’s manpower ministry, but groups such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) say the number is closer to 60%.

Gebali el-Maraghi, head of the ETUF, a state-affiliated independent organisation, says two-thirds of Egypt’s informal workers have already lost their jobs due to the policies and public fear around the virus. “Cafés, restaurants, barbershops, beauty salons, among others, are now closed ... taking a toll on their workers,” he said in a phone interview.

Living in inadequate housing, with limited access to healthcare and no alternative source of income, Ahmed said he and other cemetery workers risk falling deeper into poverty the longer people stay away. “It has greatly affected our monthly pay. Our lives are getting even harder.”

Silent, cautious

Built only as a burial site in the seventh century, the City of the Dead has become one of the country’s largest slums, home to more than 1.5-million people, according to official figures from 2017 — the latest available.

The families who work in the cemetery, digging graves, burying bodies and maintaining the tombs and mausoleums, say they have seen a steep drop in their incomes since the Egyptian government announced a partial lockdown on March 21.

To try to slow the spread of Covid-19, which has infected nearly 8,000 Egyptians, the government closed mosques and churches, and implemented a nightly curfew for residents while partially closing cafés, restaurants and shopping malls.

Ibrahim Radwan, a street vendor who sells bread to people visiting the cemeteries at Sayeda Nafisa mosque, a five-minute walk from the City of the Dead, used to get between 15 and 30 customers a day. Now, he says, he is lucky if he gets four customers over a whole weekend.

“It is really devastating for my business,” Radwan said. “I do not know how I will be able to feed my children.”

Some 1.6-billion informal workers around the world, representing nearly half the global labour force, are in immediate danger of losing their livelihoods due to the coronavirus pandemic, the ILO said last week.

To help Egypt’s informal workers get through the pandemic, the government announced in March that it would give each worker a monthly grant of 500 Egyptian pounds ($32) for three months, which critics say is not enough for a family to live on.

No cases yet

Cemetery workers say no coronavirus cases have been reported in the City of the Dead and so far, no-one with the virus has been buried there.

Ismail Abdel Haq has bought face masks, but only in case one day he needs to bury someone who had been infected. “There is no reason yet to wear them. Moreover, it really suffocates me when I wear a mask, especially when I go underground to bury the corpses.” 

Haq said he and other workers in the cemetery have been given no guidance on how to protect themselves from contagion while they do their jobs. “We do not know how to bury people who die of coronavirus,” he said as he washed down one of the tomb markers.

Traditionally, the deceased’s close family members clean the body themselves, before simply wrapping it in a white cloth. The family then performs the funeral prayer, and male family members, with the help of cemetery workers, bury the body. All this happens within 24 hours of death.

But in the midst of the outbreak, Egyptians who die from Covid-19 must be buried under the supervision of the country’s health ministry, said Mona Mina, general co-ordinator of Doctors Without Borders, a lobby group.

The burial must use government-employed undertakers who take strict precautions as they work, including keeping the body in a mortuary fridge, then disinfecting it using formaldehyde, she said.

Finally, the body is shrouded in three layers of waterproof plastic then buried by the family under supervision of ministry representatives, said Mina. “All the people involved wear protective suits and follow all precautions necessary to avoid getting infected with the virus. Also, the lowest possible number of family members observe the process.”

Mass graves

Some government officials, such as Mahmoud Fouad, head of the NGO the Right to Medicine, have called for mass graves in the desert to bury coronavirus victims and avoid spreading the infection.

Several cities around the world, including New York, have resorted to using mass graves to accommodate the surge in burials since the start of the outbreak.

But parliamentarian Mohamed Abdallah Zein el-Deen has said that Egypt’s coronavirus death toll is not high enough to warrant that step. “As long as necessary precautionary measures are being taken, there is no need to talk about these mass cemeteries now,” Zein el-Deen said in a statement to the press last month.

Am Ahmed, the gravedigger, said there is still space in the City of the Dead for more burials, but he is not sure how long that will be the case if the contagion rate in the country gets worse.

For now, his only concern is how to afford his family’s needs. He can only hope that the public’s fear of the coronavirus will subside soon, and visitors will return to the cemetery.

“There is no other solution but to get back to normal life,” he said. “If not, people like me will suffer a lot and will eventually die. If we do not die of the virus, we will die of poverty.”

Thomson Reuters Foundation