How Covid-19 is taking over Brazil’s poorest region

. May 21, 2020
Northeast Brazil Covid-19 Map: Lagom Data

In the dry, dusty backlands of Brazil’s northeastern Sertão, precious little grows on the arid soil. One exception is the mandacaru cactus, which is endemic to the region and flourishes during the cool evenings. Now, it’s not just the mandacarus that are popping up all over the Sertão, the coronavirus is spreading all over this notoriously infertile land.

The disease first arrived in Brazil’s Northeast on the coast of Bahia state, far away from the semi-arid Sertão. One of the earliest known cases in the region was Cláudio Henrique do Vale Vieira, a businessman who had been diagnosed with Covid-19 in São Paulo,

before leaving the hospital and taking a private jet for a party with friends in a Bahia beach resort in early March. When it became known that the tenth local case in the region had caught the virus from Mr. Vieira, state prosecutors pressed charges against him.</p> <p>State capitals such as Fortaleza and Recife were among the first to see their health systems creak and collapse under the Covid-19 strain. However, the economic relationship between big urban centers and the arid countryside took the coronavirus to places hardly ever visited by tourists or business travelers. In April, <em>BBC Brasil</em> followed the trail of the disease all the way along a <a href="">federal highway in Pernambuco state</a>.</p> <p>The inland spreading of the virus has not been identified as much in other states, but this is largely due to <a href="">low testing figures</a>, which appears to be the only way to keep official numbers low in Brazil as Covid-19 ravages the country from north to south.</p> <p>With more judicious testing in the northeastern states of Pernambuco and Ceará, records of the disease soared, forming a dark L-shaped figure on choropleth maps of Brazil. Surrounding states, where testing rates are lower, have not recorded such an acute increase.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-map" data-src="visualisation/2503700" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/2503631" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>As we see from the animated chart below, the disease was concentrated in the Northeast&#8217;s larger cities until mid-April. Then, it began spreading inland, popping up all over the Sertão region. These small poor cities in the Northeast have strong disadvantages working against them. They have fewer intensive care facilities and there is a discrepancy in sanitation infrastructure, meaning that for a part of the population even washing their hands in clean water is not a simple task.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-map" data-src="visualisation/2489742" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <h2>Cases growing faster and faster in the Northeast</h2> <p>While the northern city of Manaus made headlines around the world for the collapse of its healthcare system, and Brazil&#8217;s largest city São Paulo is on the verge of a full-scale lockdown the rate of new Covid-19 cases is faster in the Northeast than anywhere else in the country.</p> <p>The chart below shows that the 7-day rolling average of new cases in Brazil is now higher in the Northeast than in any other region. This figure is particularly shocking when we consider that these are absolute case numbers. The Northeast is home to just 27 percent of Brazil&#8217;s population, while the Southeast accounts for 42 percent — yet daily new case numbers in the former are now higher.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/2455994" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>

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Marcelo Soares

Marcelo Soares is a Brazilian journalist specializing in data journalism and reader engagement.

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