IN PICTURES: The French brotherhood braving the epidemic to provide decent burials for the destitute

A ringing bell breaks the silence of the cemetery as five members of the Charitable Brotherhood of Saint Eloi in Bethune solemnly remove their two-pointed hats. All are wearing black capes, white gloves and, of course, face masks.

IN PICTURES: The French brotherhood braving the epidemic to provide decent burials for the destitute
All photos: AFP

Founded eight centuries ago during a plague outbreak that devastated this region of northern France, the charity is continuing its mission to give homeless people a respectable burial – even during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our role remains the same. Regardless of the social rank of the deceased, we do exactly the same thing,” Robert Guenot, the charity's provost, told AFP.

The 25 volunteer members bury nearly 300 dead every year. But the COVID-19 outbreak, which has led to an unprecedented lockdown of France's population and limited funeral attendance to around 20 people, has forced the organisation to adapt its traditions and rituals.

“We've reduced our activities because there are no longer any religious ceremonies, but we've also reduced our presence: there are now only five volunteers per service, as opposed to the usual 11, because we don't want to penalise families,” said 72-year-old Guenot.

They also take extra precautions.

“We try to protect ourselves as much as possible. Anyone who feels ill of course refuses to be in the service. There's no taking risks,” said Patrick Tijeras, 55, who became a member in November.

“We feel that we have a social value,” Tijeras said. “Just as a sick person has the right to be cared for, the dead person has the right to this dignified treatment.”

'A painful situation' 

On one recent morning, the cemetery was almost deserted.

The deceased was a homeless 34-year-old man who had no known family or friends. Around the light-coloured wooden coffin, the charity's members gathered for a moment of silence.

Once the ceremony ended, the five men gathered around a circle drawn on the ground, as is the custom.

“I thank you for accepting this summons. In these difficult times, it's nice to be able to continue what we've been doing for 832 years,” Guenot told the other members.

Across France, grieving families are having to cope with the additional trauma of strict restrictions to stop the spread of the pandemic, such as the rules that limit travel or participation in funerals.

It is during these times that the brotherhood's original role is restored, Guenot said.

READ ALSO French undertakers live streaming funerals as families told to stay away

“We want to continue to provide a little support and comfort to the families, who can no longer find each other,” said Guenot.

All things considered, the context is reminiscent of the birth of the organisation.

According to legend, members said, gravediggers were no longer able to bury the dead during an outbreak of the plague and Saint Eloi, patron saint of blacksmiths and also known as Saint Eligius, asked two blacksmiths to ensure decent burials.

“We have these masks, this virus hanging over us makes us sad and afraid,” said Pierre Decool, 66, who nevertheless feels the need to “help people”.

“It's a painful situation, which our ancestors also experienced,” he said.

“But we'll get through it.”


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French government calls on over-60s to get second Covid booster as cases rise

As Covid cases show a significant rise in France in recent weeks, the government is calling on all eligible groups to get a second Covid vaccine booster shot.

French government calls on over-60s to get second Covid booster as cases rise

After a 40 percent rise in Covid-19 cases in the last week, the French Health ministry is calling all eligible people – including over 60s and those health conditions – to receive their second booster (fourth dose) of the vaccine.

“It is necessary to redouble our efforts to protect vulnerable people, this is done through vaccination and this campaign of second boosters is absolutely necessary,” said the ministry of health.

The Covid incidence rate is increasing in more than 50 départements across France. Currently, there are an average of 50,000 positive tests per day, which has also been accompanied by an increase in hospitalisations. 

“This is very clearly a reprisal of the epidemic linked to the arrival of new variants of the Omicron family, which are called BA4 BA5,” said infectious disease specialist Anne-Claude Crémieux to Franceinfo. Crémieux added that these variants are faster-spreading.

Therefore, the government is calling on vulnerable people to take their second booster dose (the fourth dose of the vaccine).

So far, only a quarter of eligible people have taken their second booster dose, with an average rate of 25,000 to 30,000 injections per day for the past two months.

“This is not enough, and it is not going fast enough,” urged the Ministry of Health on Tuesday.

The Haute autorité de santé also recently released its recommendation for a vaccination campaign to give a second Covid vaccine booster shot for the wider population, starting in October. 

The HAS recommendation advises starting France’s annual flu vaccine campaign in mid October (mid September for the French overseas territory of Mayotte) and combining it with a campaign to give a second Covid vaccine booster ahead of a possible new wave of Covid in the winter. 

At present although the great majority of the French adult population is vaccinated against Covid with two doses and a booster, a second booster is only recommended for people in high risk groups such as the over 60s and those with long-term health conditions.

The HAS recommendation reads: “At the end of May, the HAS recommended preparing for a booster shot campaign for people most at risk of developing the most severe forms of Covid, and envisaged a booster shot for healthcare workers.

“Those parts of the population most at risk are also those for whom the seasonal flu vaccination is recommended, therefore for logistical reasons the HAS recommends combining the two campaigns.”

The flu campaign is advised to go ahead as normal, starting in mid-October.

The HAS only makes recommendations, the details of policy are up to the government, but it usually follows HAS advice.

The usual seasonal flu campaign in France offers a vaccine for free to anyone in a high risk group, which includes the elderly, people with underling health conditions, healthcare workers and pregnant women – full details HERE on how to get the vaccine.

Those who don’t fit into those categories can still access the vaccine, but must pay for it – €6-€10 for the vaccine and the standard appointment charge to have it administered by a doctor (€25, with 70 percent reimbursed for those with a carte vitale).

The flu vaccine is available from family doctors, midwives and participating pharmacies once the campaign officially launches.

The Covid vaccine is also available from family doctors, midwives and pharmacies, but most of the vaccine centres set up in 2021 have now been closed down.

There is currently no suggestion a return of the health pass, so a second booster shot would be entirely voluntary, but the government has the power to re-introduce such measures if a major wave of Covid hits France over the autumn and winter.

Currently, there are no plans to lower the age minimum (as of now set at 60 years old) for receiving a second booster. Health authorities believe that the immune response after a first booster “continues to sufficiently protect” younger adults.