A year into pandemic, Mexico's healthcare workers fight fatigue and stress

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - When the coronavirus pandemic reached Mexico a year ago, it kicked off a marathon of strenuous shifts for thousands of healthcare and funeral home workers in a country that has registered more than 2 million infections and 178,000 deaths.

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With the pandemic still largely uncontrolled, professionals in the thick of the emergency are increasingly grappling with the fatigue, stress and frustration of their daily jobs.

“Many times I cry at night,” said medical assistant Teresa Chew, 35, who monitors the lungs of seriously ill COVID-19 patients. “People keep coming and they keep dying.”

She has tried to shed the anxiety with running, but it has not helped. Over the past few months, Chew said she has struggled to sleep and lost hair from the stress.

Adding to the strain, Chew said it is crushing to see people shrug off prevention measures such as masks. At least 3,000 healthcare workers in Mexico have died from the virus, one of the worst death tolls for the medical profession worldwide.

“It makes me really sad... people don’t understand the gravity of things,” she said.

While the pandemic has exacerbated anxiety and depression for many, medical workers have been especially hard hit, according to a recent report on suicide prevention from the Pan American Health Organization.

At funeral homes and cemeteries, employees are also contending with a seemingly endless flow of lost lives. According to a study from the University of Washington, Mexico’s overall death toll from the pandemic could exceed 200,000 in June.

“It hurts to see so much suffering,” said Marina Carreon, 46, who works at a Mexico City funeral home and at times has helped organize funerals for almost entire families killed by COVID-19.

Last month, demand for services doubled amid a peak in infections, and the staff was overwhelmed.

“Suddenly we couldn’t cope,” said Carreon, who began to suffer anxiety attacks.

Fatigue particularly dragged on industry workers when the daily death rate spiked late last year, said Roberto Garcia, vice president of the National Association of Funeral Directors. With about 40% of the sector having contracted the virus, fear of infection also runs high, he said.

Grupo Gayosso, Mexico’s largest provider of funeral services, said it implemented a psychological support program and increased its operational staff by 35% to help alleviate the burden on workers.

For Carlos Cruz, who cremates the bodies of COVID-19 victims at a public cemetery, taking care of house repairs helps clear his mind after especially taxing days, when dozens of cadavers can accumulate at once.

“It is tiring, but I am proud of the work we do,” he said.

Reporting by Noe Torres, Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Alistair Bell