“People are in the hallways, on the floor without beds, without masks,” said Ary Neto, explaining what happened to the hospital in his hometown in Brazil, which is still in the grip of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Brazil accounts for about a quarter of the world’s daily coronavirus deaths
- Virologists discovered a more deadly variant of COVID-19 in the city of Manaus in December
- Tensions have since spread across the country in large part due to open borders between states
Mr Neto lives in Melbourne – nearly 15,000 kilometers away from his family who are based near the city of Manaus, in Brazil’s Amazon region.
Since the coronavirus pandemic began, he has lost three close family members, including his 60-year-old mother, Rosemay Oran Barros Ribeiro.
He tested positive for COVID-19 on Christmas Eve and died a week later.
While Mr Neto, who works as a chef, wants to come home to be with his family, his aunt convinces him to stay in Australia because Brazilian hospitals are overwhelmed.
Intensive care unit beds are operating at capacities above 90 percent across the country, and a shortage of graves is fast approaching.
Several old plots have been excavated for fresh graves and Brazil’s largest city, São Paolo, said he would start opening around 600 plots per day.
“It’s very difficult to talk about,” said Neto.
“Mum is still very young, she can live longer.
“When he died, [I] couldn’t do anything … they put my mother’s body in a plastic bag and then she went from the hospital to a certain place where they put the corpse. [infected] with COVID-19. “
Brazil, one of the few countries that remains open to international travel, now accounts for about a quarter of the world’s daily coronavirus deaths.
There are now nearly 341,000 total COVID-19-related deaths counted in Brazil, which ranks second out of the total deaths in the United States of 559,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
With more than 4,000 deaths in a single day last week, and deaths steadily increasing since February, some doctors predict Brazil will soon exceed the death toll recorded in the US.
And while the US has continued to reduce the number of deaths since mid-January by stepping up vaccination efforts, a COVID-19 vaccine is scarce in Brazil.
That, together with longstanding socio-economic inequalities and misinformation voiced by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has created the perfect storm for a new, more transmissible variant of the coronavirus discovered by virologists in Manaus in December it spreads non-stop.
Research from several medical journal articles have found that the Brazilian P.1 variant is twice as contagious than the original COVID-19 strain, with a higher likelihood of reinfection.
A Brazilian politician, and one of Bolsonaro’s political opponents, Guilherme Boulos, tweeted the shocking death tally saying, “Brazil has become a grave”.
‘Worse day by day’
Nina Freitas, a Brazilian student studying hotel management in Melbourne, fears the worst for her family in her hometown of São Paolo.
Her father, a doctor, worked at the hospital before the situation worsened, and now chooses to stay home because of her age and health problems.
He also worries about how the current political leadership has affected people back home.
Paul Bernasconi, an Australian married to a Brazilian man, splits his time between the US and the coastal city of Guarujá, about an hour and a half drive south from São Paulo.
“I think what happened is that [Brazilian government] dropping the ball in getting to the available medical units, so they’re way behind, “he said.
Mr Bernasconi said the handling of the pandemic in Brazil had been disorganized compared to his experience during the height of the New York outbreak, where local governors ordered relevant medical supplies and built emergency hospitals early.
While the medical system in Guarujá is not experiencing “chaotic chaos” like other cities such as Rio de Janeiro and Manaus, the virus is still close to home, he said.
“Personally, we have had several members of our own family who contracted the disease and unfortunately, my husband’s sister died last week,” she said.
“The saddest part of all this is that we have to remain isolated from our family members here so that we can’t even go through the normal grieving process together.”
Misinformation, mismanagement from above
Brazil’s universal health care system is free to anyone legally residing in the country, but its response to the pandemic has been largely political.
Bolsonaro has consistently opposed quarantine measures, arguing that the economic damage would be worse than the effects of the coronavirus itself.
Brazil’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has been slow too – so far only about 2 percent of Brazil’s 211 million people are vaccinated.
Drugmaker Pfizer said in a statement Bolsonaro had rejected an offer to buy 70 million vaccines by August 2020.
At the time, Bolsonaro said he would not be vaccinated and publicly joked that the Pzifer vaccine could “turn people into crocodiles”.
Mr Bolsonaro has also appointed four different health ministers since the pandemic began, including one that lasted less than a month.
The health minister’s turnstiles are due in large part to disagreements with Bolsonaro over how best to deal with the virus.
The last one appointed, cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga, replaces General Eduardo Pazuello, a military officer without medical training who became unpopular with the public due to mismanagement of his health response to the pandemic.
Brazil has recently increased purchases of its vaccine supplies from Pzifer, AstraZeneca and Sinovac, despite previous opposition from Bolsonaro.
Preliminary research found Sinovac has so far proven to be 51 percent effective against the P.1 variant.
However, for many who have lost loved ones, disappointment and sadness remain.