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

"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."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.