Photograph: Marco Ugarte/AP
Four generations of Enrique Ruvalcaba’s family have worked at the Mezquitán cemetery in the Mexican city of Guadalajara. None of them ever saw anything like this.
Before the coronavirus, the burial ground was open to the public, and the deceased were honoured by flower-carrying mourners and mariachis. Now the dead arrive in silence and alone.
Related: Mexico City records thousands more deaths than usual, amid doubt over official Covid-19 toll
“Only the box came, not a single relative, just the coffin,” Ruvalcaba, 32, said of the first Covid-19 burial he witnessed last month. “Absolutely everything has changed.”
The Guadalajara graveyard, which has added 700 tombs for an anticipated wave of Covid deaths, has yet to see a major increase of victims – but Ruvalcaba said gravediggers had been advised to prepare. “They’ve told us a more intense phase is coming,” he said.
Yet as Mexico’s daily death toll rises to become one of the highest in the world – a record 501 fatalities were reported on Tuesday alone – the country is simultaneously preparing to reopen and weathering a politically charged battle over the true scale of the crisis.
Workers build 700 graves at the Mezquitán Pantheon cemetery in preparation for possible coronavirus victims in Guadalajara last month. Photograph: Ulises Ruiz/AFP via Getty Images
“We’re doing well, the pandemic has been tamed,” Mexico’s populist president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, claimed on Thursday as he announced he would resume touring the country when a period of nationwide quarantine was wound down next week.
Alejandro Macías, a leading infectious diseases specialist, said he understood and supported the need to plot out a return to some kind of normality for Mexico’s 129 million citizens.
Covid deaths in Mexico
“It’s good to have a plan and it is good for this plan to constantly put people’s lives first,” he said.
But Macías, who was Mexico’s influenza chief during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, said he was worried things were moving too fast, when the extent of the crisis remained unclear and different parts of the country were at different stages of transmission.
“The risk is that there will be another substantial rise in the number of cases and that this could cause some hospitals to collapse – and if the hospitals collapse this could put the security and governance of some regions at risk,” Macías warned.
“In many parts of the republic the curve has barely started to rise.”
Macías said he suspected political pressure from López Obrador’s year-old government and the United States – which is highly reliant on Mexican supply chains – explained the authorities’ desire to promote the idea the crisis was under control.
Related: US-Mexico border factories pressured to stay open despite Covid-19 risk
“It is exactly like what is happening in the United States. The government there is also putting pressure on to show a certain normality and tranquillity when clearly they can’t yet say they have the situation under control” and were still suffering “terrifying” Covid figures, Macías said.
“I feel there is a great deal of political pressure – much more in Mexico than in other parts of Latin America – because Mexico’s industrial production is so tightly connected to industry in the United States. And they want to reopen but can’t do so if Mexican industry doesn’t reopen, because we are so integrated.”
Latin America’s number two economy registered its first Covid case in late February and has since recorded more than 9,000 deaths and 81,400 cases, although the government admits the true number is probably considerably higher.
One report this week found Mexico City had issued 8,000 more death certificates than usual between January and late May, suggesting a significantly higher death toll.
López Obrador, who was criticized for his initially dismissive attitude to the pandemic, has been bullish about Mexico’s response. On 26 April, with 1,351 deaths and 14,677 infections, he claimed it had managed “to tame” the coronavirus. But many are not so sure. A month after those claims, Mexico had suffered 9,044 deaths and 81,400 cases.
A worker wears a face mask in a factory in Mexico City making coffins designed to be hermetically sealed to transport corpses of people who died from Covid-19. Photograph: Carlos Tischler/Rex/Shutterstock
Macías said it was likely many more had died. “Right now we have less than 10,000 recognized deaths. But it’s very probable the true figure is substantially bigger – probably double that.”
Behind those statistics lie thousands of grieving families – some of which have lost multiple members to Covid-19.
Karlo Colín, who works at a funeral home in Mexico City, said he and his colleagues had handled 60 coronavirus cases in the last three weeks. One family had lost five members, another four. “Every week a family member dies,” Colín said.
Despite the rising death toll, many Mexicans seem in denial. Even Colín, on the frontlines of the pandemic, admitted having doubts.
“A lot of people don’t believe in the virus,” the undertaker said. “There are times where I say, how is it possible that the guy giving me the body, at the centre of the infection, doesn’t have protective equipment? Is this real or isn’t it?”
Related: ‘Hubs of infection’: how Covid-19 spread through Latin America’s markets
Adrián Carranza, a nursing student, has been conducting Covid-19 evaluations at Mexico City’s main market, the Central de Abasto – and referring suspected patients for testing. He said that many vendors remained skeptical despite the deaths of several vendors.
“They’ll say, sure, that guy over there died, but we don’t know why,” Carranza said.
Carranza and his colleagues have faced harassment at the market, where about 40% of the stalls have shut down.
A worker resumes activities at a truck part factory after it was closed for several weeks to prevent the spread of coronavirus in San Luis Potosí on Wednesday. Photograph: Mauricio Palos/AFP/Getty Images
“Because of misinformation, more than anything else, they think we’re hurting them, that we’re going to inject them with the virus,” he said. “They yell that we’re murderers.”
As Mexico prepares to reopen, Guadalajara’s gravediggers are readying themselves for the dead.
Ruvalcaba, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather all worked in the same cemetery, called his colleagues the hidden heroes of the Covid-19 crisis.
“It’s a really noble line of work. People talk about the doctors and the nurses but nobody thinks about the people who are laying Covid’s victims to rest,” said Ruvalcaba, who has been digging tombs since he was 12.
“It’s like doctors’ work – only from the moment when the patient has gone to a better life,” Ruvalcaba added. “And someone has to do it.”