Brazil in crisis as COVID-19 rages across country: Reporter's Notebook

Gravediggers in Brazil can’t work fast enough.

Our first stop in Sao Paolo was the city’s largest public cemetery where they have specific sections to bury COVID-19 victims. Wearing full personal protective equipment, they’re shoveling from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. with funerals lined up back to back, stretching well into the night.

We weren’t there long and witnessed two of those funerals — a 28-year-old man and 25-year-old woman. While we don’t know if they died from the highly contagious Brazilian P1 variant that’s currently wreaking havoc on the country, health experts say the difference between what’s happening now compared to a year ago is the people dying are younger.

Infectious disease physician Dr. Rosana Richtman told us, “It’s very clear that the transmission is much, much higher. The age of the population that our patients are with the disease is, they are younger, they are younger with severe disease.”

PHOTO: Brazil's has seen more than 315,000 people die from COVID-19 in the last year.

The health care system is on the brink of collapse — most ICUs are at or near capacity, leaving many to suffer on waiting lists. Life-saving medication and oxygen supplies are running dangerously low.

“We don’t have enough space, enough beds, enough oxygen, enough medications for all these people with this variant that is very, very fast in the transmission,” Richtman said.

Brazil’s COVID-19 death toll is staggering. Just one day after our team arrived, the country hit a record 3,780 lives lost in a single day. More than 315,000 dead over the last year.

Much of the blame falling on embattled President Jair Bolsonaro, who has criticized lockdowns, denied science and lashed out at leaders who defy him, like his former Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who said, “The system is just collapsing. We have a health problem, we have a social problem, we have an economic problem with the way that he’s dealing.”

With an election around the corner and approval numbers dipping, Bolsonaro is scrambling to acquire as much vaccine as possible. The rapidly spreading virus continues to outpace vaccine distribution, with just over 2% of the population fully vaccinated so far. Mandetta says that Brazil has the logistical capacity to successfully distribute the vaccine on a large scale but they just don’t have enough vaccine.

Epidemiologists say Brazil could have an impact worldwide — now neighboring countries are not taking chances: Chile has closed its borders to foreigners, Argentina restricted flights to and from Brazil, Colombia closed its border with Brazil earlier this year and last week President Ivan Duque canceled a trip to meet Bolsonaro in Brazil, citing the raging virus.

PHOTO: María de Jesús describes the loss of her 22-year-old son Renan, who died from COVID.

During our travels, we met Maria de Jesus. Her 22-year-old son Renan first noticed something was wrong when he went to the supermarket and realized he’d lost his sense of smell. He rushed home and sprayed cologne, nothing. He tested positive for the virus and his condition quickly worsened. When breathing became difficult, Renan went to the hospital but was stuck on a waiting list for an ICU bed in Sao Paulo. By the time he received treatment, it was too late. He died two weeks ago.

You didn’t have to speak Portuguese to understand Maria’s pain. Tears streaming down her face, soaking her facemask, as she told us she doesn’t want anyone to suffer the way she is now.

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