Biggest Amazon city back in coronavirus chaos

. Jan 06, 2021
manaus amazon covid Indigenous leader being tested for the coronavirus. Photo: Altemar Alcantara/Semcom/AM

Last year, the northern Brazilian city of Manaus became a textbook example of what can happen when the coronavirus is left to spread unchecked. In April, the 2-million-people city in the middle of the Amazon rainforest made it to the front page of international newspapers, with macabre scenes of tractors digging mass graves to make room for an unprecedented number of Covid-19 victims. The municipal health network collapsed, and over 100 deaths were being recorded in Manaus hospitals every day.

By the second half of 2020, it appeared Manaus had weathered the worst of the crisis. One group of researchers even suggested that Manaus had attained “herd immunity,” which would have made it the first city in the world to reach this much sought-after mark.

Those claims were immediately challenged by one researcher from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Amazonas, who has now been vindicated as Covid-19 deaths once again shoot up in the Amazon&#8217;s biggest city.</p> <p>This second wave of coronavirus infections has spread quicker than the first, and has been far deadlier. For the time being, public hospitals have been able to cope with the increased demand for intensive care beds — but another health system collapse is very much on the cards, with 88 percent of ICUs currently filled.</p> <p>Health officials said they are &#8220;reinforcing the structure for post-mortem care in emergency rooms, working to install cold chambers to store cadavers and boost the capacity of morgues.&#8221; City Hall is also preparing cemeteries for an expected surge in demand, as the average number of burials increased by 50 percent in December.</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img loading="lazy" width="1024" height="768" src="" alt="Manaus city officials prepare cemeteries for a new surge in demand. Photo: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real" class="wp-image-54651" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 600w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Manaus city officials prepare cemeteries for a new surge in demand. Photo: Bruno Kelly/Amazônia Real</figcaption></figure> <h2>Amazon becomes a hot spot once again</h2> <p>The latest <a href="">InfoGripe report</a> by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation classifies the state of Amazonas in the &#8220;purple phase&#8221; of the pandemic — which holds the highest risk of an uncontrolled outbreak. Hospital admissions are reaching new record highs, and Covid-19 deaths in the state jumped 88 percent over the past two weeks.&nbsp;</p> <p>&#8220;Our analysis shows a very high risk for the city of Manaus, where new cases increased 120 percent between November and December,&#8221; says Rosemary Costa Pinto, head of the Amazonas Health Surveillance Foundation.</p> <p>This spike does not come as a surprise for health experts, who have warned of a potential new wave of infections since mid-2020, when <a href="">states around Brazil began lifting restrictive measures</a>. Still, political leaders have been reticent to reinforce lockdowns, which were never popularly accepted or respected to begin with. On January 2, the state&#8217;s top court took matters into its own hands by ordering the <a href="">closure of all non-essential businesses in the state for 15 days</a>.</p> <p>Following the decision, Manaus&#8217;s main streets were blocked to dissuade vendors from opening for business — but state lawmakers have pledged to appeal the ruling.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the police launched an operation to crack down on a group organizing clandestine end-of-year parties in the city. In order to evade the authorities, the criminals sold tickets to events to be held in unknown locations, only disclosing a meeting point where partygoers would be transported to the event via minivans. Upon their arrest, the group were holding a club night in the north zone of the city.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-map" data-src="visualisation/4876627"><script src=""></script></div> <h2>No solution in sight for Manaus</h2> <p>In a bid to assist Amazonas health officials in their fight against this new crisis, the Health Ministry will send the state an aid package of BRL 513 million (USD 97.3 million).&nbsp;</p> <p>But Amazonas has yet to formulate a local coronavirus vaccination and is currently dependent on efforts of the federal government, which is itself floundering in its preparations for inoculating the Brazilian population.</p> <p>Outside of Manaus, the Amazon region faces its own unique logistical challenges for a large-scale vaccination campaign. The area is vast, with the states of Amazonas and Pará <a href="">spanning over 2.8 million square kilometers</a> — almost the size of India. And the region has few roads, with transportation relying on rivers, with journeys that often last for many hours or days.</p> <p>&#8220;Our only strategy right now is to care for our people and get them equipment, medicines, and beds,&#8221; says Mayra Pinheiro, the top state health official in Amazonas.

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Renato Alves

Renato Alves is a Brazilian journalist who has worked for Correio Braziliense and Crusoé.

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