Even after death, COVID-19 victims endure harrowing isolation in Thessaloniki, the city in Greece most acutely affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
Efcharis Gunseer, 84, couldn’t see her daughter during any part of a losing battle with the virus, not at the nursing home where she first became ill or at the hospital where she spent several weeks. The staff of the overwhelmed intensive care ward also was too busy to set up phone calls, the daughter said.
When Gunseer died in late August, her body was wrapped in two plastic bags and placed in a shrink-wrapped casket. Under rules set by city authorities, she wasn't buried next to her late husband but in a section of a cemetery reserved for people infected with the virus. Her grave remains off-limits to visitors.
“I think to die alone that way is the worst thing that can happen,” daughter Mikaela Triandafyllidou, 45, told The Associated Press. “I only saw my mother for a moment, from a distance at the morgue for identification....People are dying with no one there for them, like dogs.”
More than 300 people have been buried so far in the segregated plots, according to Thessaloniki officials.
Greece suffered an alarming setback in late October when the country's eight-month run of low infections abruptly ended and hospital wards were pushed to capacity.
Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, and neighboring areas in the north of the country bore the brunt of the surge. For weeks, the city reported a higher daily number of new cases than Athens, despite having a population roughly one-quarter the size.
The emergency at the city's hospitals was matched at the two Thessaloniki cemeteries where pandemic victims are buried and rows of graves stand freshly dug to help keep funerals short. Flimsy white crosses and small plywood signs mark the graves.
In Greece, where most cemeteries are overcrowded, remains are typically removed after three years of burial and taken to an ossuary, but coronavirus victims will remain buried for 10 years.
Giorgos Avarlis, the deputy mayor of Thessaloniki, said authorities worry that the body bags and casket covers might slow down how quickly the bodies of pandemic victims decompose.
“It is strictly forbidden to bury them anywhere else,” Avarlis said. He noted that people who died of sexually transmitted diseases used to be buried in reserved sections of cemeteries, a practice abandoned decades ago.
Scientific opinion about the posthumous danger posed by COVID-19 is divided. Coroners wear full protective gear when carrying out autopsies on people who were infected, citing studies indicating the virus remains posthumously in the respiratory system, respiratory secretions, feces and blood.
Yet Symeon Metallidis, an assistant professor of internal medicine and infectious diseases at the University of Thessaloniki, thinks the cemetery precautions are mostly unnecessary.
“I find it absurd to do this. It makes no sense,” Metallidis said. “There is no evidence of transmission of the virus after death, nor is there any reason for them to be buried for 10 years.”
At Thessaloniki's Evosmos cemetery, an Orthodox Christian priest stands under a small black marquee waiting to conduct funeral services, while gravediggers and pallbearers wearing white coveralls handle the burials.
Chrysanthi Botsari, 69, recently lost her 75-year-old husband to the virus. She said she was never officially told where his burial in late November would take place and had to pursue the information herself.
“We didn’t know where they would take him. They just told us it should not be in the cemeteries where other people are buried because of the coronavirus,” Botsari said.
“To me, that is unacceptable, inhuman," the widow said. "All these people died alone and helpless.”