The Brazilian city of São Paulo has sped up efforts to empty old graves to make room for a soaring number of Covid deaths as the sprawling metropolis registered record daily burials this week.

As the World Health Organization warned that the pandemic has put a number of Brazilian states in “critical condition”, gravediggers worked on Thursday to open the tombs of people buried years ago, bagging decomposed remains for removal to another location.

Relocating remains is standard in cemetery operations, said the municipal secretary responsible for funeral services. But it has taken on renewed urgency as Brazil suffers its worse coronavirus wave since the pandemic began over a year ago.

On Wednesday, Brazil’s health ministry registered its highest daily Covid death toll for the second day in a row, with 3,869 people succumbing to the virus.

Brazil’s outbreak is the second-deadliest in the world after the United States, averaging about 3,000 deaths and 75,500 new cases a day over the past week – a rate that has climbed steadily since February.

Van Kerkhove, infectious disease epidemiologist at the WHO, warned that the increased transmissibility of new variants was among the many challenges faced by the country. A number of states are in “critical condition” she said, and hospitals are overwhelmed.

WHO assistant director-general, Mariangela Batista Galvão Simão, stressed the importance of domestic vaccine production to relieve pressure.

São Paulo has also resorted to late-night burials to keep up with demand, with some cemeteries authorised to stay open until 10 pm. In the Vila Formosa cemetery, workers in masks and full protective gear have been digging rows of graves under flood lights and a full moon.

The coffins have followed: a 32-year-old man was lowered down in a plain wooden box. The workers buried a 77-year-old woman, whose masked relatives gathered near the grave.

The city of São Paulo registered 419 burials on Tuesday, the most since the pandemic began. If burials continue at that pace, city hall said it will need to take more contingency measures, without specifying.

Brazil now accounts for about a quarter of Covid daily deaths worldwide, more than any other country.

Infectious disease experts warn that it will only get worse, given president Jair Bolsonaro’s attacks on efforts to restrict movement and a slow rollout of vaccines.

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