Coronavirus: Morgues and storage rooms are full of bodies. The true death toll in Mexico City is staggering

Stuart Ramsay, chief correspondent
·8-min read

The number of people dying from the coronavirus pandemic in Mexico is five times higher than official government figures, according to health department insiders.

A Sky News investigations team working in the country's capital Mexico City has documented cremations and funerals and gained access to morgues and storage rooms full of bodies - all indicate the official data is wrong.

In much of Mexico City, the second largest city in Latin America, there is virtually no social distancing, with open air markets and some businesses operating normally, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

The government claims that the virus curve has been flattened and that there will be a dramatic drop off in virus related deaths in the coming days.

In a recent briefing, the country's president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador told the nation: "What the world knows about Mexico is that we are taming the pandemic, and we are basically doing this because Mexican people are making a conscious effort."

But that has been dismissed by many dealing with the crisis as incorrect.

An official within the government, but speaking anonymously, confirms the official figures are undercounting the actual mortality rate by a factor of at least five.

Senior private sector medical specialists have told Sky News that they warned the government of the impending epidemic in January but were told that there was "nothing the government can do".

It has fuelled speculation among people familiar with the true figures that the government is going to try to tough out the virus spread and deal with the fallout later.

Failing to publish accurate death rates appears to be part of a strategy of containing panic in the worst hit poorer parts of Mexico City, which has an unofficial population of more than 30 million people and endemic poverty.

As part of its investigation, Sky News has collated mortality figures and contacted or visited dozens of hospitals, crematoria and funeral parlours.

With the help of staff, Sky News has accessed multiple hospital morgues and filmed rooms filled with bodies in bodybags, lying on gurneys or even stacked on wooden pallets because the morgue fridges are already full.

There is currently a three-day backlog for cremation at every public crematorium in the city and crematorium workers in recent days have indicated that more burials will have to take place because burning capacity is overwhelmed.

Black smoke billows out over cemeteries as the ovens are cremating on an industrial level in the city but the bodies don't stop coming.

In fact, the ovens simply cannot cope and there are regular reports of breakdowns only adding to the backlog.

In full hazmat suits, crematorium staff are working around the clock bringing bodies to huge ovens for disposal.

Outside, the coffins that delivered COVID-19 victims are piled up waiting to be destroyed.

It was early morning when we visited the site but there were already a lot of coffins waiting to be removed.

Staff said the coffins are removed every day ostensibly for destruction. But there is no independent verification of that, raising the spectre of COVID-19 coffins being reused.

In one hospital the autopsy lab is being used to store bodies in bags. The examination tables are redundant, surrounded by bodies. There is no room left in the hospital's official morgue facilities.

At another hospital, we were taken into one of three storerooms workers said were used to keep the bodies. We watched as a funeral parlour worker had to pick through corpses piled onto a wooden pallet to find the tag for the right body he had been ordered to remove for cremation.

None of the temporary morgues in the hospitals were refrigerated and the workers confirmed all the bodies were considered to be COVID-19 cases.

Outside one hospital on a main road, we filmed a funeral director as he stopped his car and opened the rear door of the vehicle.

He was joined by a family member of the deceased person being transported, and together they removed the coffin lid and tore aside what appeared to be a plastic sheet to expose the face of the corpse.

He told us later the family member wanted to confirm the deceased as his father.

Such is the distrust in the whole system and the government's response, families want to visually confirm that it is their relative they are cremating.

Throughout the whole identification process neither the director nor the family member wore masks, gloves or goggles, apparently oblivious to the danger of exposure to an infected corpse.

Sky News analysis of the data from 30 crematoria across Mexico City shows that each one is disposing of between 18 and 22 bodies each day, with a three-day backlog.

Taking an average number of 20 cremations, Sky has calculated the total number of cremations every day is 600. This figure does not include other crematoria or burials.

The urban area of Mexico City spans over two federal entities - Mexico City and the state of Mexico. Because of this, in order to work out the official figure for how many people have died, the figures for the two entities need to be added together.

Government figures show that the average number of people who die every day in Mexico City in May is 189 and (averaged out over the last five years for which figures are available, 2014-18) and the number for the state of Mexico is 185. That makes a total average daily deaths of 374.

That means there are at least 226 excess deaths occurring every day in early May, with most probably down to coronavirus.

In fact, crematorium sources told Sky News that 80-90% of the deaths they are having to deal with are due to COVID-19.

Official government data shows that Mexico City and the state of Mexico has had 1,326 COVID-19 deaths in total, throughout the entire duration of the pandemic.

In fact, the average number of daily COVID-1- linked deaths in Mexico City and the state of Mexico in May so far (up to 12 May), according to the government, is just 34.

Assuming 80% of the excess deaths dealt with by crematoria are due to coronavirus, Sky's analysis suggests the government's official figure is just 19% of the true number of COVID-19 deaths in the Mexican capital and the actual figure is around five times higher than the health department's website would indicate - the same amount we were told by our source.

Sky News has asked the government to explain the disparity in the numbers. They are yet to respond to our request.

The point is, people are continuing to die.

For family members, entry to the crematorium in Iztapalapa, one of the hardest-hit boroughs in Mexico City, is strictly limited to five people. The rest of the family gather in groups at the gate waiting for the urn carrying the remains to be brought out.

This is the desperate human face of this tragedy.

Old and young in tears, unable to properly say goodbye, unable to attend the final service.

We spoke to one man, who asked to be called Carlos, waiting for his sister outside the cemetery. They were there to collect the remains of her husband who died after experiencing "flu-like symptoms" followed by trouble breathing.

He didn't believe a word the government says.

"They're obviously lying," he said. "Here everything is a mess, they are not going to give you exact numbers, and I am not just talking about Mexico City, but the entire country. They won't give you exact numbers here."

The number of people being cremated is staggering, as is the volume of hearses and traffic around the crematoria. The queues are endless.

Families say they are taken aback by the number of people dying and believe that ignorance, stigma and the government's failure to publish the real numbers has left Mexico in denial of the pandemic.

Javier Maranon, who was waiting with his family for the remains of the family's matriarch Maria who died of COVID-19 this week, told us: "People don't understand because there are many people who still keep going out without a face mask on, they keep playing in the parks.

"But the government has the responsibility to give real numbers, real figures, so that people are informed of what is going on, that there are many cases.

"But if there are people who don't want to understand, then that would be on that person, because the government cannot be scolding each person. But it is extremely important."

The Mexico outbreak is following the same trends seen across the globe.

The upward curve of death looks set to rocket, the health service can't cope and social distancing, let alone lockdown, is largely being ignored in Mexico City.

Short of a vaccine or a miracle, the effect on this society and this city could be utterly catastrophic.