Mexico's death toll from COVID-19 set to pass grim milestone of 150,000

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Crying outside a Mexico City cemetery, a family embraced the box that contained the ashes of their beloved grandmother.

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The grandmother had fallen ill a few days after they met to celebrate New Year’s, and died shortly after, family members said. She was not even 60 years old.

Mexico is set to surpass 150,000 deaths from COVID-19, one of the world's highest death tolls, a Reuters tally shows.

Its death count is closing the gap with that of India, a country with a population several times larger. Only the United States and Brazil have reported higher numbers.

“You feel so powerless when you see your relative slipping away, when you have no way to do anything for them, to save them,” said Lesly Garcia. “It hurt me not to see her again.”

Garcia, a university student, was waiting to receive the ashes of her grandmother outside the cemetery as smoke rose from the chimneys of the crematorium.

Only a few people are allowed to attend each burial, an additional safety measure to curb the potential spread of the highly contagious virus. The police check compliance.

Nearby, a group of men said their last goodbyes to a deceased person whose ashes are kept in a small black box, adorned with a cross.

Some wept. With salsa music in the background, one by one they took a sip from a small bottle of brandy before pouring the liquor over the box.

Defying repeated calls by authorities, Mexicans had nevertheless met to celebrate the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

Then, infections and deaths hit several records in January, official data showed.

The confirmed death toll in Mexico had risen to 149,084 by Saturday, and the number of infections to more than 1.75 million, authorities reported.

But health officials have said the real number of cases and deaths is likely significantly higher.

Reporting by Josue Gonzalez and Ana Isabel Martinez in Mexico City; Editing by Matthew Lewis