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Funeral Homes in Mexico Show Coronavirus’ Hidden Death Toll

 On the outskirtsof Mexico City, an 84-year-old manstruggles to breathe. Paramedics hoist him into acapsule for safe transport. This neighborhood is ahotspot for coronavirus. At the hospital, the patient’s wife isforced to wait outside. Just the day before, she saysshe lost a son to Covid-19. Like most Covid deaths, his body was supposed to gostraight to a crematorium. Only, there’s a wait. Crematoriums arebacked up, sometimes for days. The government hasconsistently underestimated the death toll here. But handlers of thedead offer evidence that the region is becomingan epicenter for the pandemic. And it’s getting worse. This is Nezahualcóyotl, one ofMexico City’s most densely populated suburbs. During the months of lockdown, manypeople here couldn’t afford to stay home and notwork, or just didn’t want to. And the virus is hitting hard. The wait forcremation is so long some families rent temporaryinterments, like these. Funeral services barelykeep up with demand. Uriel Bizuet maintainsdeath records of all his clients. These death records can tellus a lot about the virus’s spread, and suggestCovid-19 has been more deadly thanthe government admits. For instance, this death onMarch 5 by acute lung failure, a hallmark symptom ofcoronavirus, occurred 13 days before Mexicoannounced the country’s first Covid death.

Bizuet wonders if the epidemicarrived earlier than the government said. In March, the cause of deathcould have been influenza — without a test, it’s impossible to know. To date, there are more than11,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths in Mexico. But the true toll islikely much higher. Mario Romero Zavala is a dataanalyst and software engineer in Mexico City. He recently analyzed deathcertificates for the city, and found the excessmortality — that is the number of deathsabove the historical average — showed 8,000 additionaldeaths in April and May.

“Given our study, we can saythat all the excess mortality is directlyattributed to Covid. But there’s a huge difference —we’re seeing like a four times difference betweenwhat’s the official data for confirmed Covidcases of deceased persons in Mexico City versus the excessmortality in Mexico City. The people aregiven the message that somehow we’repast the epidemic, and this is not true. This is absolutely not true,and it’s a very concerning message to begiven out.” Publicly, health authoritieskeep saying, ‘We’ve made it through the worst.’

This was Mexico’s deputyhealth minister a month ago. Now medical expertsbelieve that the worst may be just beginning. Health analysts at theUniversity of Washington project the epidemic couldkill as many as 45,000 people in Mexico by theend of summer. This week Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador,began easing restrictions to get the country back to work. Amid these mixed messages,conspiracy theories have caught fire. Doctors told Miguel Angel Gil his father died of Covid-19,but he refuses to believe it. There’s no evidence to support such rumors,and they complicate efforts to fight the epidemic. Gil says he slipped money to a funeral workerfor a visitation with his father’s body.

Government protocols for handling Covid casesprohibit that kind of contact, and advise that all corpsesbe immediately cremated. But many familiesfind ways around them as they aren’t enforceable. Juana Parada Flores, anindigenous Mazahua, says she’s following the rules,and hires a funeral service to transport her father’sbody from the morgue to a crematorium,or so she claims. Ms. Parada asks us not to follow her. But I learned laterthat she did not cremate the body after all. Like the family who paid extra for a funeral, she instead drove herfather’s coffin two hours outside the city and held atraditional burial service for the community. A Reutersvideographer captured dozens of people attending. This is the sort of potentialsuper-spreader event that health authoritieswant to avoid. As Mexico reopens, thepresident’s message is that even if danger stillexists, the worst has passed. But the effect maybe the opposite: that the worst is yet to come. 

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