National Death Infrastructure for Minimizing ContagionBy Alejandro Ehrenberg | Tue, 04/07/2020 - 13:04
According to INEGI, there were 722,611 deaths registered in Mexico in 2018. That is approximately 1,980 deaths per day. In order to manage the large number of dead bodies, Mexico, like all other countries, has in place what John Troyer, Director of the Center for Death and Society at the University of Bath, describes as the National Death Infrastructure (NDI). As Troyer explains, “the various parts of this infrastructure range from the local (a neighborhood cemetery) to the global (systems in place for international repatriation).” Likewise, the NDI involves complex logistics networks. Bodies need to be transported and stored, as do the required supplies.
Most people do not pay any attention to NDI in their day-to-day lives. It is an invisible system that takes care of what nobody wants to see. However, in extraordinary times like the one precipitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, NDI suddenly comes to the forefront. Stories of ice rinks used as morgues make everyone’s hair stand up on the back of the neck but they are only the most striking manifestations of a generally overwhelmed system. As Patrick Kearns, a funeral director in Queens, NY, said to Axios, "this feels like three years of funerals condensed into a month. So many of us were worried about the front end of this virus. Unfortunately, the back end of it is something people had not thought about."
In fact, the back end that Kearns talks about is really NDI’s frontline. In order to have an idea of the importance of funerary agencies, one can look at their market share, which Carlos Lukac, Director General of Gayosso, in an interview with Mexico Business News, valued thus: “Mexico's at-need funeral services business is worth approximately MX$8 billion (US$332.6 million). The pre-need funeral services market is valued at MX$5 billion (US$207.9 million).”
As important as funeral services are, Mexican sector leaders have expressed concern about a lack of support from the government in the current health emergency. In an interview with Milenio, Manuel Ramírez, Director General of J. García López, said: “We are creating protocols with the Ministry of Health. The present rules for handling dead bodies do not consider a pandemic like the one we are experiencing.” He went on to caution that most funerary agencies in Mexico operate under rather informal conditions. Authorities have to enforce proper logistics and transportation controls in order to minimize contagion risks.
Troyer adjudicates mounting bodies in cities like Milan, Madrid or NY to a failure on the part of governments and society to anticipate what is to be expected during a pandemic. He speaks of “virological determinism” – blaming everything on a virus, when in fact undesirable results are brought about by human beings not planning effectively. It remains to be seen how Mexico’s NDI will cope with the pandemic and whether stakeholders will make sure that it actually minimizes the spread of the virus.