The virus has killed more than 300,000 people in Brazil, spread through highly contagious conversions, political warfare and distrust of science.
PORTO ALGREE, Brazil – Patients began arriving at hospitals in Porto Alegre, much sicker and younger than before. Funeral homes were experiencing constant upheaval in business, while tired doctors and nurses applied for a lockdown in February to save lives.
But Sebastiao Mello, mayor of Porto Alegre, argued there is more important.
Mr Mello appealed to his constituents in late February, “Put your lives on the line so we can save the economy.”
The prosperous southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre is now at the center of a spectacular collapse of the country’s health care system – a crisis forecast.
With the epidemic lasting more than a year, deaths in Brazil are at their peak and highly highly contagious variants of the coronavirus are sweeping the nation, enabled by the principles of political inaction, widespread complacency and conspiracy. The country, whose leader, President Jair Bolsonaro, is embroiled in a virus threat, is now reporting more new cases and deaths every day than any other country in the world.
“We have never seen a health system failure of this magnitude,” said Ana de Lemos, executive director of Doctors Without Borders in Brazil. “And we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
On Wednesday, more than 300,000 Kovid-19 deaths were reported in the country, with about 125 Brazilians suffering from the disease every hour. Health officials at public and private hospitals are scrambling to expand critical care units, to reduce the supply of oxygen, and to obtain rare intubation sedatives sold on stock markup.
Intensive care units in Brasilia, the capital, and 16 states, with a capacity of less than 10 percent, report severe shortage of available beds and many are experiencing increasing infections (the situation is considered dire when 90 percent of beds are full.)
In the state of Rio Grande do Sul, which includes Porto Alegre, the waiting list for an intensive care unit bed has doubled in the past two weeks, to 240 critically ill patients.
At Hospitalinga Restinga E Xtreme Sul, one of Porto Legre’s main medical facilities, the emergency room has become a crammed covid ward where many patients were cared for in chairs for lack of free beds. Last week, the military built a tent-area hospital outside the main entrance, but hospital officials said the extra bed space was not very useful for medical personnel extending beyond its limits.
“The whole system is on the verge of collapse,” said Paulo Fernando Scolari, the hospital’s director. “People in dire need of treatment are coming up with more severe symptoms, lower levels of oxygen.”
The breakdown is a major setback for the country, which in recent decades has been a model for other developing countries, with a reputation for advancing agile and creative solutions to medical emergencies, including an increase in HIV infection and the outbreak of Zika.
Mr Mello, who campaigned last year on a promise to lift all restrictions on the epidemic in the city, said the lockdown would starve people.
“Our 0% of our economy, our workforce, is informal,” he said in an interview. “They are people who have to go out at night to eat something and work.”
President Bolsonaro, who has continued to promote ineffective and potentially dangerous drugs to treat the disease, has also said that lockdown is impossible in a country where many people live in poverty. While some Brazilian states have ordered business closures in recent weeks, there have been no strict lockdowns.
Some supporters of the president in Porto Alegre have protested the business shutdown in recent days, organizing convoys that stop outside hospitals and explode their horns as they fill inside the coveted wards.
Epidemiologists say that if the government had encouraged the use of masks and social distance and had aggressively negotiated the vaccines being developed last year.
Instead, former President Donald J. Mr. Bolsonaro, a close ally of Trump, called the Covid-19 a “musty flu,” often encouraging large crowds and misleading supporters by advocating anti-malaria and anti-parasite drugs. – Contradictions of leading health officials who warned that they are ineffective.
Last year, Mr Bolsonaro’s government accepted an offer by Fire to offer millions of doses of its Covid-19 vaccine. Later, the president suffered a setback in clinical trials for Coronavak, a Chinese-made vaccine that Brazil relies heavily on, and joked that pharmaceutical companies would not be held accountable if people receiving newly developed vaccines turned to crocodiles.
“The government initially denies the threat of an epidemic, then goes against science by promoting preventive measures and then promoting miraculous cures,” said Natalia Pasternak, a microbiologist in Sao Paulo. “It confuses the population, which means people felt safe going out on the street.”
Terezinha Becks, a 63-year-old retired shoe maker living in the municipality within the limits of Porto Lagre, has been very cautious since last year, going out only when needed, said her nephew, Henrik Machado.
But his 44-year-old son, a security guard who will be tasked with taking the temperature of people entering the medical facility, appears to have brought the virus home earlier this month.
Ms. Becks, who was in good health, was taken to hospital on March 13 after she began having difficulty breathing. With no beds to escape, she was treated with oxygen and IV in a flooded wing. She died three days later.
“My aunt was not given the right to fight for her life,” said Mr. Machado, a pharmacist, 29. “She was left in the hallway.”
His body was among the scores that made March the busiest month of the year at the funeral home owned by a family friend, Gaurasi Machado. Sitting in his office fee late afternoon, Mr. Machado said he was haunted by the number of young Covid-19 patients brought to his facility in coffins over the past few weeks.
Yet Mr Machado, 64, who cut his face halfway through an interview, said he opposes lockdowns or business closures. He said he was convinced from the beginning that the virus was created by China so that it could sell medical supplies around the world and eventually develop a for-profit vaccine.
When Kovid-11 was 19 in June last year, Mr. Machado said he had taken the anti-malaria drug administered by the president, Hydroxychloroquine, for which he kept me alive.
Mr Machado will be eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine in Brazil next week. But, even if he is “beaten with a stick, he will not get one,” Mr Machado said, adding that he had recently read online that the vaccine was more deadly than the virus.
Such conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 vaccine have spread widely on social media, including WhatsApp and Facebook. A recent public opinion poll by the IPEC found that a percentage of respondents believed at least one widespread lie about the vaccine.
Unbelief in vaccines and science is new in Brazil and a dangerous feature of the Bolsonaro era, says Dr Miguel Nicolas, a Brazilian neurologist at Duke University who led a coronavirus task force to the northeast of the country last year.
“In Brazil, when the president of the republic speaks, people listen,” Dole Nicolis said. “There has never been an anti-vaccine movement in Brazil – ever.”
But many hard-core supporters of Mr Bolsonaro, who has garnered the support of about 100 per cent of voters, argue that the president’s stance on the epidemic is justified.
Retired firefighter Geraldo Testa Montero in Porto Lagre praised the president as he and his family prepare to bury his sister, Maria de la R ourdes Korpolski, 70, who died last week at Covid-19.
In recent months, Mr. Montero said he began taking the anti-parasite drug ivermectin as a preventive measure. The drug is part of the so-called covid kit of the drug, which contains the antibiotic azithromycin and the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine. Mr. Bolsonaro’s Ministry of Health has endorsed their use.
Leading medical experts in Brazil, the United States and Europe have said the drugs are not effective in treating Covid-19 and some can have serious side effects, including kidney failure.
“Lies,” Mr. Montero, 63, said of the scientific consensus on the covid kit. “There are so many lies and myths.”
He said medical professionals had sabotaged Mr Bolsonaro’s plan to curb the epidemic by refusing to prescribe those drugs more decisively in the early stages of the disease.
He said, “There was a solution: listen to the president. “When people choose a leader, they trust him.”
Rivers president Claudia Franco said distrust and refusal – and a convoy of Bolsonaro supporters blasting their horns outside hospitals to protest epidemic sanctions – are crushing medical professionals who have lost colleagues to the virus and are committing suicide in recent months. Union in Rio Grande do Sul.
Ms. who cares for Kovid-19 patients. “People are in such denial,” Franco said. “The reality we are in today is that we don’t breathe enough for everyone, we don’t have oxygen for everyone.”
Ernesto Londo from Porto Alegre reported. Letcia Casado reported from Brasilia.