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4 Jun 2020 3:04
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  •   Home > News > International

    Brazil is on track to become one of the countries hit worst by coronavirus. This is where they went wrong

    Thousands of freshly dug graves in Sao Paolo's cemeteries paint a jarring picture of what comes next for Brazil, where COVID-19 has become a political issue and vulnerable communities could be decimated.

    The people of Paradise City, Sao Paulo's second biggest favela, are used to being ignored by government.

    The shanty-town ("Paraisopolis" in the local tongue) sprang up in the shadows of the luxury apartment complexes of nearby Morumbi, one of the city's most affluent suburbs.

    But its 100,000 residents have never had access to proper healthcare, education or sanitation.

    So, when the coronavirus started creeping through the tightly packed alleys, Gilson Rodrigues knew he had to take matters into his own hands.

    "It is a question of saving lives," he told ABC.

    Through crowdfunding and a few generous private donations, the community leader hired three private ambulances and eight medical professionals to cope with the looming emergency.

    "Things are getting serious," he said.

    "Many people don't exactly understand what is happening.

    "People continue walking in the streets as if the virus hasn't arrived in our community, as if the virus was only affecting rich people who travelled outside the country."

    With thousands of residents now reportedly showing symptoms, there's little doubt the virus is here.

    The thousands of freshly dug graves in Sao Paolo's cemeteries paint a jarring picture of what comes next.

    COVID-19 has become Brazil's 'political issue'

    Back in February, this was Julio Croda's worst-case scenario.

    As the Health Ministry's chief infectious disease advisor, it was his job to coordinate Brazil's coronavirus response.

    He developed a detailed policy on social distancing which was fiercely rejected by the President, Jair Bolsonaro.

    Then he was forced to resign.

    "During this time, you had a fight between [Health] Minister Mandetta and President Bolsonaro about this recommendation … For this reason, I decided to leave the Government," Dr Croda told ABC.

    "[It was] very hard because I want to help. I want to support public health."

    Three weeks later, his former boss, health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, was fired.

    The minister who replaced him, Nelson Teich, resigned a month after that.

    "The COVID-19 pandemic has become a political issue. This is the problem," said Dr Croda.

    President Jair Bolsonaro continues to downplay the virus

    Populist President Jair Bolsonaro has earned the nickname "Trump of the Tropics" for his populist zeal and anti-science approach to government.

    Indeed, his approach to the pandemic has often echoed that of the US President.

    He downplayed COVID-19 for months, calling it "a little flu" that Brazilians were uniquely suited to overcome.

    He's touted the unproven and potentially dangerous anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as effective protection against the virus, noting the US President was taking it preventatively.

    He demanded all but the elderly ignore the state governments' social isolation restrictions, even attending anti-lockdown protests in person to insist nothing was more important than the economy.

    When the President sacked his health minister in April, he said: "Mandetta's vision was that of health, of life. Mine is more than life, it includes the economy, jobs."

    One highly respected British medical journal, The Lancet, called Bolsonaro the "biggest threat" to public health in Brazil.

    In April, when the coronavirus death toll surpassed 5,000, the President told the press:

    "So what? I mourn, but what do you want me to do about it?"

    Now, more than 1,000 people are dying every day.

    Brazil is now the sixth country to register more than 20,000 deaths.

    And experts say the peak of the outbreak is still weeks away.

    Brazil's response is a 'perfect storm for bad outcomes'

    Brazil's health system is not perfect.

    But it's not terrible either, especially when compared to other South American nations.

    Dr Croda, who now works at the Federal University of Mato Grosso do Sul, points to Brazil's successful containment of the Zika virus and HIV as evidence the country has the capacity to tackle public health crises.

    But in the case of coronavirus, he's witnessed first-hand a "perfect storm for bad outcomes".

    Social distancing wasn't adopted early enough, he says, and it's difficult to carry out effectively in the crowded favelas anyway.

    He points to the lack of testing capacity, even now, and the 80 cities that don't have any intensive care unit beds.

    "When you don't have ICU beds, the lethality associated with the disease increases too," he told ABC.

    That's already playing out.

    "The people [are dying] in front of the hospital without any support … They're dying on the street."

    Indigenous groups are at high risk

    Communities in the Amazon rainforest are particularly vulnerable.

    Dozens of Indigenous groups have been hit already.

    Health experts say the disease is spreading rapidly amongst the Indigenous populations there, including across the border to Peru and Colombia.

    Many hospitals are severely understaffed, under-resourced and far away from many isolated rainforest communities.

    Critical COVID-19 patients are being evacuated by plane to the only intensive care units in the vast region, but services are severely stretched.

    The Mayor of Manaus called what was happening to his people a "crime against humanity".

    "I fear genocide and I want to denounce this thing to the whole world. We have here a government that does not care about the lives of the Indians."

    Paradise City could become a living hell

    Back in Paradise City, Gilson Rodrigues is coordinating a group of volunteers he calls "street presidents".

    Two "presidents" are assigned for every 50 coronavirus cases, taking care of sick families and encouraging them to stay home.

    Gilson has also organised food parcels for those in need and established two isolation shelters. He continues to spread the message about social distancing.

    "We need to show people why they need to stay home because if they end up in hospital, the respiratory machines won't be there to help them. And they will die."

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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