Health services in the capital of Brazil’s largest state, Amazonas, are buckling under the pressure of the pandemic. The new and more infectious strain of Covid-19, in Brazil, which has the second-highest number of coranivirus-related deaths in the world (over 200,000) has seen the British government ban all flights to the UK. On 15th January, eyewitnesses reported 213 burials in the state capital, Manaus, which averaged 30 deaths per day pre-pandemic.
In an exclusive to CAFOD, the official aid agency of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, Sister Irene, from REPAM (the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network, which works “to create a development model that privileges the poor and serves the common good”) noted the extraordinary toll that the pandemic is taking in the state capital:
“The situation is dramatic. Many people are dying outside the largest public hospital of Manaus (the capital state of Amazonas) while waiting. The same is happening inside the hospital due to lack of staff, oxygen and ICU beds.”
Sister Irene’s comments were echoed over the weekend by Archbishop of Manaus Dom Leonardo Steiner, who called for urgent support from the international community:
“We, bishops of Amazonas and Roraima, make an appeal: for the love of God, send us oxygen. The population cannot continue to die for lack of oxygen and beds in the ICUs.”
The SUS, Brazil’s national health service, in Manaus has faced chronic underfunding, as has the region, for years, not helped by the downturn that saw Brazil’s economy contract by 8% between 2014 and 2017. Known as the ‘Paris of the Tropics’ in the 1800s, Manaus fell into poverty after the collapse of the rubber trade in the middle of last century. To combat this, it was made a Free Economic Zone in the 60s, by the military dictatorship bringing rapid demographic growth in the decades since. However, recent economic troubles in Brazil have left its public services overstretched and underfunded while the Amazonas population has increased by nearly a quarter (from 3,483,985 to an estimated 4,144,597) since 2010.
Sister Irene has mourned the lack of “political will” to tackle the challenges posed to the collapsing health service, with the poorest in society, once again, in the worst situation.”
While Steiner passes a sterner judgement: “In the first wave,” he said, “people died from a lack of information, beds in hospitals, and ICUs in Amazonas and Roraima. Today, in the second wave, people are dying, incredible as it may seem, from a lack of oxygen. Even hospitalized, they lack oxygen.”
President Jair Bolsanaro, who described the virus as nothing but a ‘little flu’ and called the spate of new lockdown measures in October last year as ‘crazy’, has been widely condemned for not taking appropriate measures to protect his people. Though a lockdown on Manaus has been imposed by the state government, many of its people are simply not able to follow it – living hand-to-mouth as they do.
In further comments, the president of the Brazilian episcopate, Dom Walmor Oliveira de Azevedo said the current crisis in Manaus highlighted the ‘fragility in planning, in actions of public power’ and the disproportionate way in which it is falling on the indigenous and poor in the Amazon.
Disease epidemics weigh heavy on the memory of indigenous populations that were so decimated by diseases brought by Europeans centuries previously – with some peoples including the Paiter Suruí and the Parque Indigene do Xingu putting themselves in voluntary isolation since March.
However, the pandemic, along with months of government inaction, opened the door to illegal miners and loggers who bring the disease to the furthest corners of the Amazon. While Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court has mandated that the government institute a plan to tackle the
In his final comments, Archbishop Steiner called for Brazilians “[to leave] behind the arguing, the denial. Let us leave behind politics which divides and corrupts. Let us leave behind profiting from the pandemic…that we continue to use a mask, follow social distancing and carry on caring for each other’s health.
“We are in a difficult moment of the pandemic, which seems almost without an end. Let us all make our contribution and engage with solidarity in caring for the life of one another.”