Those who knew and loved him say Leandro Maduro Costa was born a clown, lived his life as a clown – and had hoped to die as one.

“He always said to me: ‘Felipe, if I die first, bury me as ‘Potato’,” said Felipe Alves Guimarães, a friend and fellow entertainer known by audiences as Tambourine.

“It’ll be the first time a clown has ever been buried dressed as a clown,” Guimarães remembered his performing partner as saying. Tambourine promised to honour Potato’s wishes.

But when Covid-19 began tearing across Brazil in March it destroyed those plans as it has now destroyed more than 50,000 lives in the world’s second worst-hit country after the US.

Potato the Clown was laid to rest in Rio on 11 May, surrounded by a small group of relatives and in a sealed coffin.

“Because of this virus we couldn’t make his wish come true,” Guimarães said. “It really upset me. I spent two or three days locked up at home in pieces – because I wasn’t able to say a final farewell to my friend.

“We used to speak on the phone every day. But I couldn’t go there to say my last goodbye and to ask God to welcome him with open arms.”

With more than 1 million Covid-19 cases reported, Latin America’s largest democracy is being consumed by perhaps its most acrimonious political dogfight in decades – and some pointing the finger directly at president Jair Bolsonaro for the scale of the calamity.

Largely hidden is the human tragedy: a story of lost friends, parents and siblings, and of tens of thousands of families plunged into mourning.

Brazil’s victims have included people of all political stripes: conservative politicians, centrist civil servants, leftist musicians – and entertainers, like Potato the Clown, who simply tried to delight people, whatever their leanings.

Ana Catarine Carneiro, a nurse who is campaigning for Brazil’s dead to be remembered, said the politicisation of coronavirus had obscured its human cost.

“What really matters can no longer be seen,” Carneiro said. “The people are no longer visible. The impact the pandemic is having can no longer be seen – and all that remains visible is the politics.”

Maduro was born and raised in Fazendinha, a hard-knock Rio favela, and moved to Realengo, a working-class area where Covid-19 has killed 213 people, as a teenager, as his family sought to escape the violence.

Friends and relatives remember an upbeat jack of all trades who, after serving in the army, worked as everything from a DJ and soundman for Rio’s most famous funk group, Furacão 2000, to a solderer and social activist who founded a community project called Companhia do Amor (the Company of Love). But clowning was his calling.

“He really was born with something special,” said his wife, Monique Santos, who he met at church and convinced to be a clown herself. “Bringing a smile to people’s lives calmed his soul.”

His younger brother, Arnaldo de Lucena Costa Júnior, said Potato had always been the clown of the family. “It was hard to be in a bad mood when he was around.”

Clowning lead Potato to the Albert Schweitzer hospital , where he would later lose his life aged 44. The churchgoing performer would roam the corridors and wards trying to cheer up patients old and young with words of humour and compassion – and yellow rubber chickens.

“He always had something hidden inside his jacket … He understood happiness was a kind of cure. When someone feels joy they respond better to their medicines,” Guimarães daid.

Potato built a particular connection with a girl suffering from a degenerative disease who had been in the hospital for more than a decade. “He’d always talk about her. They became friends,” said his wife, 34, whose stage name is Rouxinol (Nightingale) the Clown.

His body began to ache on 4 May and he came down with a fever. Relatives took him to a local clinic where he was put on a drip and sent home.

He seemed to be on the mend, posting on Facebook on 7 May to thank well-wishers for their prayers alongside a photo in which he posed with the Brazilian flag in a bowler hat and red clown’s nose.

But 24 hours later, his wife began worrying and she rushed him to the hospital he had avoided for fear of putting the children he entertained at risk. “He didn’t want to go. But I realised something was strange. His lips were purple,” she said.

There, Santos recorded a mobile phone video to reassure the clown’s mother and daughter, Mel Cristine, who would turn 14 the next day, all was well.

“He said he was all right,” she remembered. Potato, who had diabetes and high blood pressure, was admitted and she returned home because Covid-19 restrictions meant family members could not stay. “And that was the last contact I had with him.”

At just after 3am on the Sunday her telephone rang. “They didn’t explain anything – they just said to come to the hospital,” Santo said. “But I could already imagine what had happened.”

Like many who have lost loved ones to coronavirus, Potato’s friends and family expressed unease that the intensely politicised pandemic was clouding the memory of its victims.

“The Brazilian people need to unite, whether they support Bolsonaro or [former left-wing presidents] Lula or Dilma or whichever politician,” said Guimarães. We need to put politics to one side and come together.

“I’ve lost five friends in less than a month,” he added. “Three of them very close.”

The clown’s brother said he would remember the exuberance of a doting father whose nickname came from his short and chubby features.

“He was just a sensational guy. Topnotch,” he said. “The penny still hasn’t dropped.”

Unable to attend their favourite clown’s funeral, local children pasted a yellow poster on to the entrance of the Company of Love.

In curly black letters they wrote: “Your happiness did the world good.”

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