Cinthia Ribeiro knew she had a fight on her hands when COVID-19 arrived in her hometown in Brazil. What she didn’t know was that, one year on, humans would be out to kill her, too.
Ribeiro is mayor of Palmas, capital of Tocantins, a small state wedged between the southeastern edge of the Amazon rainforest and the Cerrado, South America’s tropical savanna.
The fresh wave of infections now racing across the landscape has reached her city, flooding hospitals with patients, and pushing intensive care unit occupancy rates up to 96%.
The country is now widely viewed as the epicenter of the pandemic, with the highest number of daily deaths of any nation. On Tuesday, that number topped 3,000 for the first time, with 3,251 deaths recorded.
And this week, Brazil’s registered COVID-19 deaths rose above 300,000 — a toll exceeded only by the United States. Ribeiro bleakly remarks that this number is about the same as the population of her city.
Worried that local health systems would collapse, and there would be many more deaths than the several hundred already logged by Palmas city officials, the mayor tried to buy time.
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This month, she placed her city under what she calls a “partial lockdown.” She shut down the beaches in her jurisdiction along a 106-mile-long lake and banned the public from visiting parks and waterfalls. Supermarkets, bars and restaurants were restricted to deliveries only.
Then came the backlash
“I have suffered real and serious threats against my life,” Ribeiro, 44, told NPR.
She said she was bombarded with death threats on her cellphone and social media platforms. A crowd gathered outside her apartment block, yelling abusive comments. People raced by in cars in the middle of the night, shooting fireworks at the building.
Ribeiro finds it astonishing these attacks by whom she describes as far-right extremists would happen in the middle of a catastrophic pandemic.
“We are trying to save lives! We are fighting against a health crisis,” she said. “Yet our lives are being endangered as well.”
Public health systems in “collapse”
In more than half of the country’s 26 states, ICU occupancy rates have hit 90% or above, according to a bulletin posted March 16 by the Brazilian medical research institution Fiocruz. Brazil’s public health systems are “living through the worst collapse in history,” it said.
There have been numerous reports in Brazilian media and on social media platforms of patients dying while waiting for beds, shortages of medicines and oxygen, and bodies being dumped in hospital corridors.
Once admired worldwide for its fast and efficient national immunization drives, Brazil has seen its COVID-19 vaccination program plagued by political infighting, bureaucratic blunders and supply problems.
Health workers care for COVID-19 patients in the emergency room of a hospital in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on March 11. In more than half of Brazil’s 26 states, ICU occupancy rates have hit 90% or above during the pandemic.
Silvio Avila/AFP via Getty Images
So far, three COVID-19 vaccines have been authorized by Brazil’s health regulators — AstraZeneca, CoronaVac and Pfizer. Fewer than 7% of Brazilians have had one dose.
“The situation is very, very concerning,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. “Brazil has to take it seriously.”
Yet medical professionals said that is easier said than done.
A president who yanks off his mask
Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, turned 66 on Sunday.
He marked the occasion by appearing before hundreds of flag-waving supporters outside the presidential palace who, with little regard for physical distancing, gathered there to sing Parabéns (the traditional birthday congratulations) and hand him a birthday cake decorated in Brazil’s yellow and green national colors.
Standing before the cheering crowd, Bolsonaro yanked off his face mask and began lambasting governors and mayors who are imposing restrictions in towns and cities across the country.
“Some little tyrants, or tyrants, hinder the freedom of many of you,” the retired army captain said.
He declared that Brazilians could “count on the armed forces” to defend their liberty and democracy, including the constitutional right to free movement, without explaining how the military might do so.
“I will do anything for my people!” he declared.
This month, Bolsonaro petitioned the Supreme Court to stop three governors from imposing nighttime curfews. Although they are usually lightly enforced in Brazil, he calls them “a state of siege.”
He no longer dismisses COVID-19 as “a little flu.” Yet he maintains lockdowns are more harmful than the virus because they create mass unemployment. That “leads to depression, violence, fights, deaths and chaos,” he warned his audience on Facebook Live.
To prevent the pandemic from unleashing a wave of poverty last year, his government responded by making emergency payments of $110 a month to more than 65 million Brazilians. Now, facing growing debt, it has cut that sum to $27 — far too little to survive on.
Bolsonaro predicts even more trouble. “Shops will be looted, buses will be torched, there will be serious unrest,” he declared.
Frustration and fear in the medical community
Brazil’s medical professionals and scientists are watching their president with disdain and alarm and worrying about what will happen next.
“Brazil now represents a threat to global public health,” said Dr. Pedro Hallal, coordinator of Epicovid-19, the largest epidemiological study into the coronavirus in Brazil.