As Covid death rate soars, race to dig graves in Brazil's Manaus

Paula RAMON
·4-min read

With more than 3,000 burials in January alone, the Amazon rainforest city of Manaus does not remember a deadlier month.

Its cemetery is expanding at breakneck speed as bulldozers dig dozens of graves daily to accommodate the influx of victims of Brazil's deadly second wave of Covid-19, possibly fueled by new, more infectious virus variants.

The non-stop roar of earth-moving equipment does not drown out the wails of Etiane Ferreira, bent over the newly-dug grave of her father, who died of coronavirus complications.

"Dad. Why?!" she exclaims, crouching on the ground and causing cemetery workers to briefly pause their task of unloading yet more coffins wrapped in plastic.

Manaus, the capital of Brazil's northern Amazonas state, has been hit hard by the pandemic's resurgence.

The city of some 2.2 million has seen its hospitals run out of beds and life-giving oxygen with which to treat the stricken.

About three-quarters of the city's dead end up at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery, near the banks of the Rio Negro, where workers brave the oppressive tropical sun in top-to-toe protective plastic gear to clear land for new graves.

To save space, they are also erecting dozens of vertical, concrete crypts, each able to hold 48 coffins or urns stacked over four tiers. These will hold up to 3,000 bodies.

Over the past two weeks, Manaus recorded more than 100 burials per day, with a record of 213 on January 15.

Almost half (1,419) of the 3,165 funerals recorded in Manaus from January 1-22 were officially due to the pandemic -- many of the rest are thought to be victims of an overburdened health system unable to deal with the sudden surge.

- 'It hurts' -

The numbers are a poor illustration of the depth of the tragedy unfolding in Manaus, snippets of which play out at Nossa Senhora Aparecida.

"It hurts a lot," said Michael Guerreiro, a cemetery worker, as he pauses in deference to Ferreira's display of anguish.

"We are human beings."

Ferreira's father needed to be intubated, her cousin, Christiane, told AFP. But there was no hospital bed for him.

"The doctors and nurses worked hard, but unfortunately they are not God," she said, also in tears, embracing her cousin.

Under a plastic cover between the graves, another employee uses a brush and black paint to apply the names and dates of birth and death of dozens of deceased to wooden crosses that will go on their final resting place.

The man, who does not want to give his name, says he has recently been painting about 70 crosses every day.

- Funerals lined up -

With Ferreira's cries in the background, Luan Santos, 32, squeezes the hand of his wife Ashley, one month pregnant.

In his other hand, he holds a wreath for his mother, who has died aged 68, another victim of the pandemic.

Santos said his mother had to wait for days to be admitted to a public hospital. He went there several times to try and get news on her condition, with no luck.

Last Thursday, he was told she had died the previous day.

"I was told it (the late notice) was due to the large number of people; they couldn't handle so many people," the 32-year-old banking employee told AFP, crying.

A cemetery worker brings him the funeral documents and the couple leave the cemetery along a dirt road as more funeral processions line up outside.

As the heat of the day intensifies, so does the stench of death.

A man following his uncle's funeral procession remembers the first wave of Covid-19 to hit Manaus last year, compelling unprepared city officials to resort to mass graves.

"At least now the dead are treated with dignity here," he tells AFP.

"But I wish they would open beds in hospitals, instead of graves in cemeteries."

On Monday, a supreme court judge authorized an investigation into whether Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello can be held accountable for the collapse of the health system in Manaus.

Many blame the extent of the crisis on the government of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who has railed against lockdowns, face masks and other "hysteria" and has sought to discredit vaccines.

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