Coronavirus: Pandemic ‘gripping the Amazon’ as people ‘die in their beds’

In Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon rainforest, people are dying in their beds. 

They are trying to lift the coronavirus lockdown across Brazil – people teem the streets, the traffic noise is deafening, the markets are full, but the body count keeps growing.

The COVID-19 pandemic is gripping the Amazon and it is spreading.

Brazil has the second highest number of cases in the world, behind the US, with more than 584,000 – and 32,548 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University, which is tracking the virus.

We joined a body collection in Sao Jorge, one of the worst hit neighbourhoods.

Family and friends crammed the streets as the SOS Funerals undertakers van negotiated its way through the narrow alleys of what is basically a slum.

SOS is paid by the city to pick up the poorest dead. Nobody in Sao Jorge can afford a proper funeral.

We could see the body of Afonso de Souza through the door to his breeze block single room.

Teary eyed friends told me he was really popular in the community but had a drink problem. They do not know what he died of – the point is, they never will. Afonso’s body, like hundreds of others, will never be tested.

The undertakers are used to this now. They have been collecting the dead in huge numbers for weeks.

Sixty bodies a day has now become 40 a day, but that is over double the normal numbers in a country where poverty and disease are part of everyday life, and death.

Dressed in full hazmat suits, they brought a simple coffin into his home and loaded him up. Friends and family helped carry the body to their vehicle – another victim, another family, another community hit by the pandemic.

Manaus is a remote city in the heart of the Amazon. Nobody drives to get here. You come by plane or more likely boat.

Despite its remoteness, despite the vastness of the Amazon, the rainforest and its river did nothing to protect its people from the virus as it swept through and actually still is.

There are no funeral corteges for these poor people, no hearses. Mini vans take the bodies to the COVID cemetery on the outskirts of the city.

We followed through in torrential rain. The funeral van struggling through waterlogged roads, huge plumes of spray soaking our windscreen as we left the city and entered the rainforest.

The Taruma Cemetery is huge and well established, but this is where coronavirus victims come.

Outside the gates – only three members of families of victims are allowed inside – relatives look through the fences of the cemetery trying to spot the funeral taking place. They stand in small groups, often crying, often hugging each other.

If there is a backlog of burials, and there often is, the coffins are offloaded into refrigerated lorries. The work of the SOS team is done, they have more work elsewhere.

We did not know what to expect in the cemetery. What we saw was a vast area of newly dug graves, grave diggers in hazmat suits digging more graves and tending to those holding the bodies of the dead. It is exceptionally grim.

At the bottom of a hill, families wait beneath a canopy to protect themselves from the incessant rain.

When it is their turn, they take their paperwork to a man who paints the name of the family member on a simple blue wooden cross.

They wait for a tractor and trailer to pull up beside the families and the cemetery staff hoist the coffins on to a flat bed.

It is silent but for the sound of mechanical diggers gouging out more graves from the mud.

Once loaded the tractor moves off followed by a morbid, sobbing, heartbreaking procession to the burial site.

The coffins are lowered into a newly dug pit. It is a mass grave. The coffins laid side by side.

Sticks pushed into the earth indicate where each coffin can be identified from six feet higher.

Wooden rectangles are later placed above the bodies so the family will forever more have somewhere to come to pay their respects and mourn.

Above the muddy pit, the families film on their phones – cry, throw flowers and hug each other. Then the work to cover the coffins begins. A huge digger picks up mounds of mud and moves to the grave side.

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