Tech by VICE

You Can See New York City’s Mass Graves From Space

Burial trenches for people who have died in New York City during the coronavirus pandemic can be seen in satellite imagery.

by Jordan Pearson
Apr 9 2020, 11:20pm

Hart Island burial trenches on April 6. Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies

The coronavirus pandemic is raging across the world, but in America, New York City is being hit particularly hard. The city reported 824 deaths from Covid-19 infection within 24 hours on Thursday, the deadliest day of the pandemic in the city so far, and deaths in the state have topped 7,000.

Emergency rooms are packed, and many people are dying at home and other non-hospital settings where they are not counted in official coronavirus tallies. This happened 280 times in New York City on Monday, NPR reported. At the same time, rates of people hospitalized for heart attacks have seemingly dropped suspiciously. It's possible that fewer people are experiencing heart attacks while shut indoors, but doctors worry that sick people are avoiding the hospital and thus at greater risk of death at home.

While this is happening, Reuters reported on Thursday, New York City has hired contractors to dig trenches on Hart Island to bury the dead (this work is normally done by incarcerated people). Normally, two dozen bodies a week are buried at the site, which is intended for people with no next of kin or whose families are unable to arrange a funeral. According to Reuters, which published drone footage of the site, the bodies have started coming in at a rate of two dozen a day, five days a week.

According to satellite images provided to Motherboard by geospatial data company Maxar Technologies in Colorado, the burial trenches in New York City were already visible from space three days ago, on April 6.

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Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies

The image from April 6 "[focuses] in on the area that includes new excavations and that correlate with the recent ground photos as published in the Reuters article and other news reports," a Maxar spokesperson said in an email.

The dead at Hart Island are buried in caskets with their names written in large letters in case they need to be disinterred, Reuters reported. It's not clear how many of the dead on Hart Island died of Covid-19 infection, or if the uptick in burials is due to packed ERs, increased deaths at home, other factors related to the pandemic, or a combination of all of the above, but a spokesperson for New York's medical examiner told Reuters that Covid-19 victims were likely among the buried.

America isn't alone in digging burial trenches during the coronavirus pandemic. In March, the Washington Post reported that Iran dug two burial trenches in a cemetary using satellite imagery provided by Maxar, which the paper reported were created to bury people who have died from Covid-19 infections.

This week, New York City councilor Mark Levine tweeted that the city will "likely" begin temporarily interring bodies in parks, although the city's medical examiner told BuzzFeed that there are currently no plans to do so. "Trenches will be dug for 10 caskets in a line," Levine tweeted.

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