Brazil’s COVID-19 outbreak pushes hospitals to the brink of collapse.
Coronavirus Breaking News: The virus has killed over 300,000 people in Brazil – and its spread is aided by a highly contagious variant, distrust of science, and political infighting.
How Brazil’s COVID-19 Outbreak Overwhelmed Hospitals
More than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, deaths in Brazil are at an all-time high. Moreover, contagious variants of the coronavirus are sweeping the country, further enabled by conspiracy theories, distrust of science, widespread complacency, and political infighting and dysfunction.
The country – whose leader, President Jair Bolsonaro has played down the threat of the virus – is now reporting more new cases and deaths per day than any country in the world.
Patients are arriving at Porto Alegre hospitals far sicker and younger than before. Funeral homes are experiencing a steady rise in the business, while exhausted nurses and doctors pleaded in February for a lockdown to save lives. However, Porto Alegre’s mayor, Sebastião Melo argued that there was a greater imperative.
“Put your life on the line so that we can save the economy,” Mayor Melo pleaded to his constituents in late February.
Now, Porto Alegre – an affluent city in southern Brazil – is at the epicenter of a major breakdown of the country’s healthcare system. “We have never seen a failure of the health system of this magnitude,” said Ana de Lemos, the executive director of Doctors Without Borders in Brazil. “And we don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Coronavirus Breaking News:
How Brazil’s COVID-19 outbreak overwhelmed hospitals.
On Wednesday, Brazil has surpassed 300,000 COVID-19 deaths, with about 125 Brazilians succumbing to the disease every hour. Health officials in both public and private hospitals were scrambling to stock up on dwindling supplies of oxygen, expand critical care units, and procure rare intubation sedatives that are being sold at an exponential price markup.
Furthermore, intensive care units in Brasília (the capital) and 16 of Brazil’s 26 states report major shortages of available beds, with capacity below 10%. Moreover, many are experience rising contagion. In the Rio Grande do Sul, the state that includes Porto Alegre, the waiting list for intensive care unit beds doubled over the past two weeks, to 240 critically ill patients.
At one of the main medical facilities in Porto Alegre – Hospital Restinga e Extremo Sul – the emergency room has become a crammed COVID-19 ward where many patients received care in chairs due to a lack of a free bed. Last week, the military unit built a tent field hospital outside of the main entrance; however, hospital officials said that the additional bed space is of little use for a medical staff stretched way beyond its limit.
“The entire system is on the verge of collapse,” said Paulo Fernando Scolari, Hospital Restinga e Extremo Sul’ director. “People are coming in with more serious symptoms, lower oxygen levels, in desperate need of treatment.”
This breakdown is a major failure for a country that in the past decades served as a great model for other developing nations, with a good reputation for developing creative solutions to medical crises, including a surge in H.I.V. infections and the outbreak of Zika.
Mayor Melo, who campaigned last year with the promise of lifting all pandemic restrictions in the city, said that a lockdown would cause people to starve. In an interview, he said, “Forty percent of our economy, our labor force, is informal. They’re people who need to go out and work in order to have something to eat at night.”
Furthermore, President Bolsonaro – who continues to promote ineffective and potentially dangerous drugs to treat COVID-19 – has also said that lockdowns are unsustainable in a country where so many people live in poverty. While some Brazilian states have ordered business shutdowns in recent weeks, there have been no strict lockdown mandates.
In recent days, some of President Bolsonaro’s supporters in Porto Alegre have protested business shutdowns, organizing caravans that stop outside of hospitals and blast their horns while inside, COVID-19 wards overflow.
Coronavirus Breaking News:
How Brazil Could Have Avoided Additional Lockdowns and The Collapse of Their Healthcare System
In this Coronavirus Breaking News, and to answer the questions, “How Brazil’s COVID-19 outbreak overwhelmed hospitals?” or “How could Brazil have avoided additional lockdowns?” epidemiologists say that Brazil could have avoided additional lockdowns and the collapse of their healthcare system if only the government had promoted the use of face masks and social distancing, as well as by strongly negotiating access to the vaccines being developed last year.
But instead of following health protocols, President Bolsonaro – a close ally for former President Donald Trump – called COVID-19 a “measly flu”. He also often encouraged large crowds and created a false sense of security among supporters by endorsing anti-parasite and anti-malaria drugs – contradicting leading health officials who have warned that they were ineffective.
Last year, President Bolsonaro declined Pfizer’s offer of tens of millions of doses of its COVID-19 vaccine. Later, the president celebrated setbacks in clinical trials for CoronaVac – the Chinese-made vaccine that Brazil came to largely depend on, and even joked that pharmaceutical companies would not be held accountable if people who got newly developed vaccines turned into alligators.
Natália Pasternak, a microbiologist in São Paulo, said, “The government initially dismissed the threat of the pandemic, then the need for preventive measures, and then goes against science by promoting miracle cures. That confuses the population, which means people felt safe going out in the street.”
Mistrust of COVID-19 Vaccine
Mistrust of COVID-19 vaccines – this is one of the reasons how Brazil’s COVID-19 outbreak overwhelmed hospitals.
Terezinha Backes, a 63-year-old retired shoemaker living in a municipality on the outskirts of Porto Alegre, had been extremely careful over the past year, going out only when absolutely necessary, according to her nephew, Henrique Machado.
However, her 44-year-old son, a security guard assigned to take the temperature of people entering a medical facility, appears to have brought the coronavirus home early this month.
Ms. Backes, who had been in good health, was taken to a hospital on March 13 after she started having trouble breathing. With no spare beds, she was treated with an IV and oxygen in the hallway of an overflowing wing. She passed away three days later. “My aunt was not given the right to fight for her life,” said Mr. Machado, a 29-year-old pharmacist. “She was left in a hallway.”
Ms. Backes’ was among numerous bodies that have made March the busiest month ever at a funeral home owned by a family friend, Guaraci Machado. Sitting in his office on a recent afternoon, Mr. Machado said that he has been struck by the number of young COVID-19 patients who have been brought to his facility in coffins over the past few weeks.
However, Mr. Machado, 64, says that he’s opposed to business closures or lockdowns. He said that from the beginning, he has been convinced that the virus was created by China so that it could sell medical supplies around the world, and eventually develop a profit-making vaccine.
When he got COVID-19 in June of last year, Mr. Machado said that he took the anti-malaria drug promoted by President Bolsonaro – hydroxychloroquine – which he says kept him alive. In the coming weeks, Mr. Machado will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine in Brazil. However, he says that he won’t get it even if he were forced to. He says he won’t get the vaccine because he read online that vaccines are more lethal than the virus.
Such conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccines are widespread on social media. A recent public opinion poll by the firm IPEC discovered that 46% of respondents believed at least one widely circulated falsehood about vaccines.
Mistrust of science and vaccines is new in Brazil – a dangerous feature of President Bolsonaro’s era, said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian neurologist at Duke University who led a coronavirus task force in the country’s northeast last year.
“In Brazil, when the president of the republic speaks, people listen,” Dr. Nicolelis said. “Brazil never had an anti-vaccine movement — ever.”
However, many hardcore supporters of President Bolsonaro – who retains the support of about 30% of the electorate – argue that the president’s instinct on the COVID-19 pandemic has been right.
Geraldo Testa Monteiro, a retired firefighter in Porto Alegre, continues to praise President Bolsonaro even as he and his family were preparing to bury his sister, Maria de Lourdes Korpalski, 70, who died of COVID-19 last week.
In recent months, Mr. Monteiro said that he started taking the anti-parasite drug – ivermectin – as a preventive measure. Ivermectin is part of the so-called COVID-19 kit of drugs, which also includes the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine and the antibiotic azithromycin. President Bolsonaro’s health ministry has endorsed the use of these drugs.
Leading medical experts in Brazil, Europe, and the United States have said that those drugs are not effective to treat COVID-19 and some can even have serious side effects, including kidney failure.
However, President Bolsonaro’s hardcore supporters continue to take these dangerous and ineffective drugs and they say that medical professionals are just sabotaging the president’s plan to rein in the pandemic.
The mistrust and the denials – and the caravans of President Bolsonaro’s supporters blasting their horns outside hospitals to protest pandemic restrictions — are devastating for medical professionals who have lost countless colleagues to the virus and to suicide in recent months, said Claudia Franco, the president of the nurses’ union in the Rio Grande do Sul.
“People are in such denial,” said Ms. Franco, who has been taking care of COVID-19 patients. “The reality we’re in today is we don’t have enough respirators for everyone, we don’t have oxygen for everyone.”
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The Bottom Line
A highly contagious variant, conspiracy theories, distrust of science, widespread complacency, and political infighting and dysfunction – and based on Coronavirus Breaking News, this is how Brazil’s COVID-19 outbreak overwhelmed hospitals.