Sao Paulo digs mass graves as virus death toll soars in Brazil

  • Video report and words by ITV News Correspondent Juliet Bremner

The strange thing about Sao Paulo is that when you arrive in Brazil’s most densely populated city it seems pretty normal. This is despite the fact that it’s the biggest city in Brazil, a country which currently has the highest daily death rate from Covid-19 in the world.

The figures are bad. For the last three days more than 1,000 people have officially died from the virus, but because there is little testing and health care has been stretched to breaking point, most Brazilians believe this is a vast under estimate

When we arrived on Thursday the airport was quiet and we had to present a letter from the Brazilian embassy giving us permission to report.

However, driving into this sprawling metropolis of 20 million people the streets seem busy and there’s plenty of activity.

It’s not until you reach the Vila Formosa cemetery on the outskirts of Sao Paulo that it becomes clear something is very wrong.

Mourners tell Juliet Bremner hundreds of graves are being dug every day. Credit: ITV News

We were confronted with row upon row of freshly dug graves; mourners we spoke to told us hundreds are being dug every day. Funeral directors are dressed in full white protective suits, a sign they are burying those believed to have died from the dreaded virus. Dozens of funerals like this are held every day.

The governor of Sao Paulo recognised the danger was heading to South America and he attempted to enforce a lockdown back in March. Schools, restaurants and public buildings were closed and everyone was encouraged to social distance and wear masks.

This was against the advice of President Jair Bolsonaro who likes to model himself on Donald Trump and has consistently played down the virus as “a little cold”.

He wanted the economy to remain open, insisting that gyms and hairdressers should go back to work despite the fact that Brazil was now losing more people per day to the virus than any other country.

Fresh graves at Vila Formosa cemetery on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. Credit: ITV News

The result has been confusion and mounting casualties. There is an anxiety to get back to business, but there is also an underlying fear that this will make the number of infections worse.

The hospitals are reaching capacity, with the mayor of Sao Paulo this week warning intensive care beds were 90 percent full and health experts insisting the peak had not yet been reached.

The favelas, densely packed shanty towns with high levels of violence and poverty and little sanitation, seemed an ideal breeding ground.

It’s impossible to socially distance in the ironically named Paradise City, or Paraisopolis, home to more than 100,000 people. But we discovered that so far the death toll has been kept to a relatively low level, just 38 deaths have been officially recorded.

The community in the favelas have been warding off the virus by coming together. Credit: ITV News

This seems in large part down to the community of volunteers who have raised donations to buy three ambulances to pick up those who are infected and have established an isolation centre to house those with symptoms.

They also cook 10,000 free meals a day which are handed out to families to stop them going back to work and spreading the virus.

Renata Alves who's usually an arts producer has come back to Paradise City to coordinate the ambulances.

She told me that they had to look after themselves because no-one else would.

“These people were always forgotten, now they are invisible and tomorrow they will be just one more number,” she told ITV News.

With 13 million people living in favelas across Brazil it is a model that could save many thousands of lives.