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Covid-19 ‘mass graves’ on New York’s Hart Island spark frenzy of fake news amid grim reality

Covid-19 ‘mass graves’ on New York’s Hart Island spark frenzy of fake news amid grim reality
Photos of a ‘mass grave’ for coronavirus casualties on New York City’s Hart Island sent the media into overdrive overnight, even launching calls to dig up President Trump’s properties instead. The truth, while grim, was different.

Drone imagery from the island showing a dozen undertakers – some in full white protective suits – stacking coffins in a trench has spread around the world, with tabloids from London to New York itself latching on to them as an iconic shot depicting New York City’s struggle with Covid-19.

The imagery was quickly amplified by other sensationalist outlets, such as CNN.

It wasn’t long before Twitter “resistance” blamed President Donald Trump, launching the hashtag #TrumpBurialPits and arguing that the coronavirus dead should be buried at nearby golf courses owned by his company.

As precedent for this, they cited the Arlington National Cemetery – once a plantation owned by General Robert E. Lee – which was used as a military hospital during the Civil War and converted into a burial site for those who did not make it.

Burying the Covid-19 casualties on Hart Island is particularly heartless, they argued, because the graves cannot be visited by mourning relatives.

There is just one problem with this narrative: it isn’t, strictly speaking, true.

It turns out that New Yorkers buried at Hart Island by and large don’t have any relatives to mourn them. The property has been used for over a century as a “potter’s field,” a pauper’s cemetery for the poor, the homeless and those who died unclaimed by their relatives. By some calculations, over a million people have been buried there over the years.

Hart Island has served other purposes over the years, mostly grim ones. During the Cold War, it was a missile base. Before that, it was used as a jail, a tuberculosis sanatorium, a reformatory for boys, a psychiatric asylum, and a drug rehabilitation center, among other things. 

Multiple New Yorkers pointed out on social media that the images were being treated on the level of “dig a trench in Central Park and throw bodies in it” hysteria – referring to the infamous and now-deleted tweet by city councilman Mark Levine from last week, which was swiftly shot down by Governor Andrew Cuomo. They were not proof of the apocalypse, however.

What actually happened was that the normal wait time for burying people on Hart Island has been shortened from 30 to 14 days, in order to relieve the pressure on the city’s overcrowded morgues due to the sheer volume of Covid-19 victims – 5,150 as of Friday. 

The reality of the coronavirus outbreak in New York is grim enough, there is no need to gild the lily. The state has registered over 160,000 cases and 7,400 deaths, with New York City alone accounting for 87,028 infected – which is now more than the official total reported in China, where the pandemic originated. 

Despite apocalyptic predictions, however, the city has not run out of hospital capacity, room in intensive care, or ventilators.

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