ESPIRITO SANTO DO PINHAL, BRAZIL—My country is suffering.
And with the new and highly contagious P1 variant running rampant, there is no end in sight.
Every time you step outside your house, fear and anxiety follow you as you wonder if today is the inevitable day you will contract the virus. Your mask glued to your face nearly 24-7 and hands dry and scabbing from the over-application of rubbing alcohol. Ambulance sirens scream in the distance every couple of minutes as more COVID-19 patients are rushed to the hospital. When you open your social media, you discover another person you knew just died.
As COVID-19 devastates Brazil, a family forced to shelter in a chicken coop becomes a symbol of desperation.
“Dad, you promised me you would come home, you promised,” a young boy of about nine was seen by my aunt yelling these words, while sobbing uncontrollably outside the hospital in my hometown of Espirito Santo do Pinhal, only a few days ago.
“His mother couldn’t even console him because she was kneeling on the ground, nearly choking on her own tears,” said Simone Leite. She didn’t know the family but felt their pain.
This father and husband, in his late 40s, was just one of the more than 3,000 Brazilians who died on that day. For the past several weeks the daily number of deaths has climbed like a helium balloon with a broken string, reaching 3,650 on March 26.
“We have to be more careful than ever right now … if one of us gets sick from this virus, we will die at home,” my father, Luis Leite, warned me when I arrived home in early March after living in Canada for the past year.
It sounds scary because he’s right. Nearly every Brazilian state has an ICU occupancy of 90 per cent or higher at the moment, according to a bulletin filed March 16 by the Brazilian medical research institution Fiocruz. Today, that number is believed to be at 100 per cent throughout the country.
Hospitals are working at full capacity, tanks of oxygen are quickly disappearing along with medication and equipment and staff are physically and mentally exhausted. They can’t take on any more COVID-19 patients, let alone all of the regular illnesses.
For the first time since the pandemic began over a year ago, people have started dying in hospital lines waiting for treatment. Even in small towns like mine, in the interior of Sao Paulo state, the situation is grim.
“We are working at our limit … with the materials we have, the equipment. We are at our limits, personally and psychologically as well,” said Thayma Ramos Felicio Candido, the chief nurse at Francisco Rosas, the only hospital in Espirito Santo do Pinhal, 200 kilometres north of the city of Sao Paulo.
“We live in a small town. I used to go to work with a smile on my face every day … Now I go home crying after my shift feeling like I failed,” she said, swallowing tears, after a 12-hour shift where she lost two patients and had to re-intubate a 30-year-old with more than 80 per cent of his lungs compromised.
With a population of 30,000, the town has been in a sort-of lockdown with the rest of the state for the past two weeks. It’s a measure some say came too late as Brazil’s death toll topped 300,000, the world’s second-worst after the United States. Others, who side with President Jair Bolsonaro, think it’s unfair to ask people to stay home in a country where so many need to work daily in order to eat.
“You cannot panic, like resorting once again to this stay-at-home policy,” Bolsonaro told a group of supporters in early March. “People are going to die of hunger.”
Although the president, who contracted the virus himself in July, has said a lot of controversial things during this pandemic, like recently calling the country “sissies” for complaining about COVID, he’s not completely wrong.
The pandemic is making Brazil poorer and poorer. This year started with 27 million people (12.8 per cent of the population) living in extreme poverty, according to a study by the Getulio Vargas Foundation. It’s a one-percentage-point increase since 2011 which amounts to two million people.
I hear stories daily about families who haven’t eaten meat since last year, have empty fridges at home or are living on the streets. But one story affected me so much I had to visit the family and offer help.
With nowhere to live, Ana Carolina Lima da Costa, 20, an unemployed cleaner, and construction worker Thiago da Penha Pereira, 29, took shelter with their two children in a chicken coop. Their city, Maringa, is a nine-hour drive from my home , about 300 kilometres from the border with Paraguay.
With Maringa locked down, the couple only managed to make about $131 (Canadian) working during the month of March and had to choose between paying part of the rent where they used to live or buying food for their children, 4 and 6.
“We left the house and my sister-in-law let us put our things and move into their chicken coop,” Lima said when we met on a hot Saturday afternoon. “My husband and I slept sitting on chairs, and my kids slept on a mattress on the floor.” She explained that there was no room for the family to sleep in her sister-in-law’s small, unfinished house.
Fortunately, after her story was reported by the local news and gained international attention, people came together and offered money, food and a comfortable place for the family to live.
“We spent 15 days living in the chicken coop and now we have a little bit of comfort in the new apartment a nice man lent to us … we are very thankful for all of the help we have received,” she said in front of the coop. I made a donation to the family while another couple waited outside to donate food.
Last year, Bolsonaro’s government made emergency payments of $140 (Canadian) a month to more than 65 million Brazilians who lost their jobs during the first lockdown. Now, facing growing debt, that sum has been slashed to $34.
That’s not enough money to survive. Minimum wage in Brazil is $219 a month and families earning that already struggle to make ends meet.
The secretary of health in Espirito Santo do Pinhal expressed what many Brazilians are feeling at the moment — our politicians are the ones to blame.
“Our ICU has been at maximum capacity for weeks and the worst is yet to come,” said Luiz Antonio de Rezende Filho, his voice low and guttural over the phone, like someone who has just lost a family member.
“Our politicians had an entire year to prepare for this, but they didn’t do anything but bicker at one another and politicize this pandemic. Now the people will pay the price, and it will be an expensive one.”
As Brazil’s fourth health minister since the pandemic began, Marcelo Queiroga, is taking charge of the critical situation this month as fears continue to mount about the P1 variant.
The mutation that emerged in the Amazonian city of Manaus last December is thought to be more infectious and deadlier than the original strand. Brazilian health workers are alarmed at the number of young people now dying from the virus. And it can reinfect those who have already contracted COVID-19.
“In the past three months, we have seen that the virus has become stronger with this new mutation, and the patients we treat are younger and younger,” said nurse Ramos Felicio Candido, who contracted the virus herself at the beginning of the pandemic.
The nurse, who has worked for eight years at the hospital in Espirito Santo do Pinhal, said the way people die is “heartbreaking.”
“They die alone without saying goodbye to their loved ones,” she said, adding that the hardest loss for her was the hospital’s ICU chief, Dr. Luiz Fernando Zarpao, who died in January of this year after contracting the virus at work.
The only hope for Brazil lies in the vaccines. But Brazil’s vaccination rollout has been slow thus far with only 7.7 per cent of the population, 16.2 million people, having received at least one dose, as of March 30.
The country is hampered by a lack of vaccines, slowness in the application of available doses, delays in scheduled deliveries inside and outside the country and the delay of the government in buying the vaccines.
For my family and me, all we can do at this point is be as careful as possible. Because as my old man said, if one of us needs to go to the hospital, we are in big trouble. There are no beds in the ICU and the waiting list is getting longer and longer daily.
The good news for us is that my 93-year-old grandmother, Iolanda Lobo, got both doses of the vaccine in February.
“I didn’t have any reactions and I feel great,” she told me over afternoon coffee at her apartment in the heart of Espirito Santo do Pinhal.
Nearing a century of experiences, the wise mother of three, grandmother of eight and great-grandmother of one, who became a widow in her 30s, said she has never lived through anything like this.
“This is all so sad. I think about those who don’t have anything to eat right now … but God knows what’s best and he has a plan for everyone,” said Lobo, with her light-blue rosary in her wrinkly, stained hands.
March will go down as the saddest month in Brazilian history, with a total of 140,000 deaths, a third of those from virus. Corruption, mismanagement of public funds, greed and politics have turned Brazil into a war zone. And all we can do now is dig graves, wait for the vaccine and pray.