'Living Through A Nightmare': Brazil's Manaus Digs A Mass Grave As Deaths Mount

Apr 23, 2020
Originally published on April 24, 2020 7:03 pm

"I just wish a helicopter would come and fly me away from here," says Manuel Viana, a Brazilian funeral director in the front line of the spiraling coronavirus crisis. "We are living through a nightmare."

Viana is among the citizens and officials struggling to cope with a tragedy under way in Manaus, a city of 2.2 million in the middle of the Amazon rainforest.

Cemeteries and hospitals have been overwhelmed by a surge in the number of deaths, most of which are not registered in official COVID-19 statistics because of a lack of testing and bureaucratic delays.

Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, is a bustling port where soybeans, timber, fish and other products are shipped down the Amazon River. It's also a major cocaine trafficking hub, notorious for daily homicides and prison massacres.

Yet the coronavirus has introduced a new kind of horror. The Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery has begun using backhoes to dig mass graves.

This has become "the only option" because it is "humanly impossible" to dig the required number of graves, says Viana, who runs a funeral company and is president of the Syndicate of Funeral Businesses in Amazonas.

According to Viana, the city's daily average of deaths has risen from 30 to more than 100. The mayor's office confirmed to NPR that there have been 340 burials just in the past three days. In most cases, the cause of death was listed as unknown, said a city hall spokeswoman.

City authorities are in little doubt that COVID-19 victims account for most of the spike. This means the virus is taking a far deadlier toll on Manaus than the official count of 172 virus-related deaths suggests. The reported death toll throughout Brazil is 3,313.

Video footage has appeared online showing the collapse of Manaus' burial services and public hospitals. In one, corpses lie on beds in a hospital alongside live patients undergoing treatment. Another shows a line of vans waiting to deliver bodies for burial at the Nossa Senhora Aparecida cemetery.

Viana says that in some cases — perhaps through fear of infection — families are not coming forward to claim the bodies of their relatives.

"That is something I honestly have never seen in Manaus before, " he says.

Often, those who do claim their dead are unable to mourn properly because of tight restrictions on the number of people at graveside gatherings.

"Seeing those families being unable to come to bid farewell or pray is heartbreaking," says Viana. "I have been in this business for more than 30 years. We never thought we would encounter a situation like this."

The city's mayor, Arthur Virgílio Neto, says Manaus is experiencing "a calamity." He has appealed for help from Brazil's federal government and leaders of the G-20 nations.

Fears are growing that deaths will surge next month when coronavirus infections are predicted to peak. The governor of Amazonas has warned that the state could face "a very serious problem in the next 10 to 15 days."

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The number of people dying of COVID-19 in Brazil is surging. Officially, it's more than 3,600. But with relatively little testing, the real toll is believed to be far higher. NPR's Philip Reeves reports that one Brazilian city, Manaus, can no longer cope.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Wollace de Lima lost his father a week ago. He was 55. His death wasn't officially registered as COVID-19 because he wasn't tested. De Lima's certain the virus caused it.

WOLLACE DE LIMA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: His dad had all the symptoms, he explains.

DE LIMA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: De Lima used his cellphone to film inside the hospital during his father's final hours.


DE LIMA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "My dad's dying, and there's no one here to help him," he says. He saw corpses on hospital beds alongside patients.

DE LIMA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "When my dad died, I counted nine other bodies," says De Lima.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: Outside the hospital, there were angry scenes. The nightmare continued when de Lima took his father's body to the cemetery.

DE LIMA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "There were about 20 other funeral cars," he says. Manaus is a river port in the Amazon rainforest. It's capital of Brazil's Amazonas state. Drug trafficking's rampant. Homicides happen every day. The carnage caused by COVID-19 is in another category. Patricia Sicchar is a doctor now on the frontline.

PATRICIA SICCHAR: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "The population of Amazonas is being decimated," she says. Sicchar says chronic corruption has starved local hospitals of resources. She's had to buy her own personal protection equipment. The health system's not prepared for the coronavirus, she says.

SICCHAR: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "There's zero planning, zero organization," she says.

SICCHAR: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "Ambulances carrying patients must wait outside hospitals because there are no beds," says Sicchar. So far, Manaus has only registered 193 COVID-19 deaths, yet the mayor's office says the average number of people dying every day has more than tripled. During the first three days of this week, there were 340 burials, it says.


REEVES: Manaus has begun burying its dead in mass graves. An online video of its largest cemetery shows backhoes pouring earth onto coffins within.

MANUEL VIANA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "This is the only option," says Manuel Viana, a local funeral director. Otherwise, it would be impossible to dig enough graves. Viana says some families no longer come forward to claim their dead. Those who do can't mourn properly because of restrictions on cemetery gatherings.

VIANA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "Seeing families unable to say farewell to loved ones is heartbreaking," says Viana. Health officials believe the coronavirus hasn't yet peaked in Brazil.


WILSON LIMA: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "There could be a very serious problem in the next 10 to 15 days," says Wilson Lima, governor of Amazonas. Dr. Patricia Sicchar is determined to battle on.

SICCHAR: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "We're giving everything we have," she says.

SICCHAR: (Non-English language spoken).

REEVES: "We cry," she says, "then we wake up, dry our tears and get back to work."

Philip Reeves, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.