Last week was the one-year anniversary of Brazil’s first death from COVID-19. At the time, I was reporting on development issues in the Amazon, and had to cut my trip short. The coronavirus was spreading.
Brazil began closing its borders, suspending interstate travel and issuing tight social restrictions. I bought a ticket for a flight home to southern Brazil. Belém’s Val-de-Cans International Airport was moderately busy. Flights were canceled, and people waited in lines to change tickets. Some people wore masks. Most didn’t. Masks were hard to find. Pharmacies had run out weeks before.
Just past security, heading to my gate, I met Cleide Lima, who wore a surgical face mask. She was stretched out across a row of seats next to her adolescent daughter and her husband, and I approached her for an early story about the coronavirus. They had left their home in Manaus several days before to celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary in a Rio de Janeiro resort town. But when they arrived, everything was closed. They had to be rerouted across four states to try to get back home.
“That’ll be my memory of my 20th wedding anniversary. No beach celebration. Lying on the airport floor waiting for my connections. Now, we are afraid the airports will close. We’re just praying to God that we’ll make it to Manaus.”
“That’ll be my memory of my 20th wedding anniversary. No beach celebration. Lying on the airport floor waiting for my connections,” Lima told me at the time. “Now, we are afraid the airports will close. We’re just praying to God that we’ll make it to Manaus.”
Today, more than 2,250 people are dying a day as the country quickly approaches a death count of 300,000. With the new, highly contagious Amazon variant spreading around the country and a slow vaccine rollout, there seems to be little light at the end of the tunnel.
I thought about Lima over the last year as Manaus suffered two deadly spikes of COVID-19. The latest, in January, came as oxygen ran out in hospitals across the city and the images of mass COVID-19 graves again made headlines. So, I called her to see how she was doing.
“A lot of people that I know died. I was terrified to open Facebook because I was constantly receiving messages that this or that friend had died.”
“A lot of people that I know died,” she said. “I was terrified to open Facebook because I was constantly receiving messages that this or that friend had died.”
She said that thankfully, no one in her family had been infected. She owes that to the fact that they’ve led a very restricted life.
“I don’t receive visitors. I only go out in extreme cases. My husband only goes out to work. And we avoid a social life,” she said. “But I've become depressed and have anxiety.”
That's a reality for growing numbers of people across Brazil. According to a recent University of Sao Paulo study, Brazil has seen the worst levels, internationally, of anxiety and depression amid the pandemic.
Last year on my flight home, I had a layover in Belo Horizonte. The departure hall was busy. Some people wore masks. Most didn’t. Masks were hard to find. Pharmacies had run out weeks before.
I met Aurenice Jacob sitting along a row of empty blue and white chairs. She is a 64-year-old grandmother who was returning to her home in Rio de Janeiro. At the time, it was one of the epicenters of the virus in Brazil.
“I’m a little scared with this coronavirus problem,” she said that day. “We see a lot of people with masks and that’s a little scary, but I’m confident that this will soon pass.”
I recently called Jacob, too, and asked her if she could have imagined that the pandemic could have lasted this long.
“No. At no point did I imagine that,” she told me. “We said, ‘Oh, this could last for six months.’ And then, it just kept going. Just more of the same.”
She said her family members have done their best to remain isolated. She’s retired, so she’s been watching her grandson. She said they were blessed that no one in her family had died. She blames President Jair Bolsonaro for mishandling the pandemic.
“He took a long time to do anything. He was against the vaccines. He was a bad example. Bringing crowds together. He didn’t use a mask. I thought this was very bad.”
“He took a long time to do anything,” she said. “He was against the vaccines. He was a bad example. Bringing crowds together. He didn’t use a mask. I thought this was very bad.”
That’s the opinion of 61% of the country, according to a recent poll. Only 18% of the population supports Bolsonaro’s COVID-19 policies — down four points from the previous month. But his supporters have been vocal.
In mid-March, Bolsonaro supporters in at least nine cities held caravans against increased social restrictions, which are being implemented in many cities as COVID-19 cases rise around the country.
Bolsonaro set out to change his image around his pandemic response after former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was cleared to run in next year’s presidential elections. Bolsonaro is behind in early polls.
At a March 10 event, Bolsonaro signed a new law to help expedite the purchase of vaccines. He wore a mask in public for the first time in well over month.
“We were and we are tireless from the very beginning in the fight against the pandemic,” he said. “Since the beginning, with the rescue of Brazilians in Wuhan, in China, we have been an example for the world.”
But just a week later, he again attacked local officials for instituting social restrictions, and blamed them for sending the country into social chaos. He threatened to impose a state of siege, and questioned if COVID-19 was really the cause of collapsing health systems.
"It seems like people are only dying of COVID-19,” he said.
He’s now installing the country’s fourth health minister in a year: Marcelo Queiroga, the president of Brazil’s Cardiological Society, is replacing outgoing Health Minister General Eduardo Pazuello, who came to the post 10 months ago with no health experience. Last May, Pazuello authorized the widespread use of the unproven drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine across Brazil. He recently came under fire for his handling of the health crisis in Manaus.
Queiroga has promised to continue Bolsonaro and Pazuello’s policies and says he will not “make magic.”
Bolsonaro claims that Brazil is one of the countries that has vaccinated the most people against COVID-19. But only a third of those people are fully vaccinated — less than 2% of Brazil’s population. Bolsonaro’s government says it's acquiring over 500 million vaccines. But it’s only purchased a third of those so far, and the bulk won’t be arriving for months.
Meanwhile, the new highly contagious P1 Amazon COVID-19 variant is spreading rapidly across the country.
In the months following my return home to Florianopolis last year, the city weathered the storm well with low numbers of cases and deaths. But today, hospitals are over capacity. There’s a waitlist to get into intensive care units. The city has instituted overnight curfews. Health workers are demanding a full lockdown. But that seems unlikely to happen.
“A lot of people are very depressed because it’s a situation that you don’t know when it’s going to end,” Lima said over the phone from her home in Manaus. “We are dreaming of having our freedom back like before. Dreaming of a new world. But we don’t know what to expect in the future. The vaccination campaign is really slow. Sometimes, it seems like we are going to have to live like this forever.”