International 30/01/2021

In Manaus hospitals are without oxygen - and those who are sick die at home

The second wave is even worse than the first, with the number of deaths multiplied tenfold

Javier de la Sotilla
3 min
Three workers bury the body of a Covid-19 victim in a Manaus cemetery.

BarcelonaManaus is the world epicentre of chaos and healthcare collapse. Hospitals are saturated - no beds, no oxygen, no drugs -, logistics are impossible, they have a coronavirus variant, and their denialist president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a mess; and so the only way out for those who are torn between life and death is to buy bottles and medicines on the black market to try to heal at home. The first wave made evident the fragility of the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, of two million inhabitants and embedded in the middle of the rainforest. Then, images of the thousands of excavated graves in Manaus went around the world. That May, at least 348 people were buried and the high incidence of the virus encouraged some to claim that the region had achieved herd immunity. However, the second wave has been much worse and, in January, the number of covid corpses has increased tenfold.

In fact, on the day before Christmas, when the second wave was already looming, Wilson Lima, the governor of Amazonas, announced the closure of all non-essential businesses. But the population had given in to the idea that the virus was a thing of the past and protests against the restrictions flooded Manaus, until finally the government backed down and withdrew the decree. The days that followed saw massive parties of up to 4,000 people, most of them without masks and convinced that the "alarmist media coverage," as Bolsonaro's son said, was a lie. In January alone, more than 3,000 people have died from the virus in Manaus.

Relatives of patients with covid-19 receive oxygen cylinders to be able to treat patients at home, as hospitals are saturated

Those responsible for the lack of foresight now claim that no one could have foreseen that a new variant would emerge, but some experts point out that the more people become infected, the more likely the virus is to mutate. The new variant is, like those that originated in the UK and South Africa, more contagious - but just as severe. And it is very present: according to a study by Fiocruz, Brazil's leading health research institution, of the 90 people who participated in Manaus, 66 were infected by the new strain. The increase of contagions facilitates the collapse that, as a consequence, increases the number of deaths: people die suffocating in their beds, as health centres are overflowing with people. The demand for oxygen is three times the supply.

The Minister of Health under investigation

Brazilian Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello looked the other way when an increase in cases was documented in December, also when he was notified in January that oxygen supplies were running low. Now Pazuello is being investigated by the Public Prosecutor's Office, in a petition backed by the Supreme Court, on charges of a crime of omission. He is the third health minister the Latin American country has had since the beginning of the pandemic. The first, physician Henrique Mandetta, was dismissed by Bolsonaro, who considered that the social isolation measures Mandetta proposed would be worse than the disease. The second, physician Nelson Teich, resigned after a month in office due to differences with the president. Pazuello is the longest-serving minister. He is an army general with no experience in the field of health.

In the meantime, authorities are trying to speed up the delivery of oxygen and evacuate the sick to other states in the country. A small relief, but not enough. Some businessmen and celebrities are making donations, but the structural problem of a dismantled health system cannot be solved overnight. Bolsonaro said on Wednesday that his government has done "more than it is obliged to do" in managing the crisis in Manaus. However, many don't believe it. It is because of his denial of the seriousness of the virus, the lies and his detachment from the suffering of the population that his popularity has eroded.

Thousands of people protested last weekend with motorcades in some 50 cities across the country to demand accountability for his handling of the pandemic. Several left-wing and right-wing movements are demanding that Congress impeach him to remove him from office, an impeachment the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia, has warned that he does not intend to proceed with.