Esron Torres’ grandfather was admitted to a hospital in Manaus, Brazil, with a finger wound. Days later, he was buried in one of the city’s many overcrowded cemeteries. A handful of relatives attended the small ceremony, while others listened over the phone as the family’s patriarch was laid to rest.
According to his death certificate, it was not the wound that killed him, but Covid-19.
The tragedy highlights the massive healthcare crisis facing this city, the capital of the northwestern state of Amazonas, and the strain on local institutions’ ability to contain the coronavirus.
Officials have attributed just 532 deaths to Covid-19 in Manaus, but the actual total is likely much higher. City data shows that 2,435 people were buried in April alone, compared with 871 burials during the same month a year ago. Shocking images have also emerged of excavators digging mass graves at the Parque Taruma cemetery, to accommodate the spike in burials.
Manaus mayor Arthur Virgilio Neto told CNN Brasil he feels the city has been “abandoned” during the health crisis. “I would like to create awareness around the world because I can’t seem to get Brazil to wake up to the strategic importance of my state and my region,” Neto said.
The pandemic has left many of the city’s public hospitals overcrowded with nowhere to treat patients, doctors in Manaus told CNN Brasil. They also said overcrowding made it challenging to isolate those who may be presenting Covid-19 symptoms.
Torres says his 69-year-old grandfather was placed in the same hospital room with at least two people who appeared to be suffering from coronavirus symptoms, after his blood pressure shot up during a minor surgical procedure.
His death certificate later confirmed he had died from complications from Covid-19, according to Torres. Though he was not tested before hospitalization, Torres said his grandfather had not shown any symptoms consistent with coronavirus before entering the hospital and believes he caught the virus while in intensive care.
Now, his main concern is keeping his grandmother safe. “My grandmother is also a part of this at-risk group, so she’s now our main concern,” Esron said.
Sandra, another Manaus resident, shared a similar story. CNN agreed to use only her first name because of the sensitive details she shared.
Sitting outside a different public hospital, she said her mother had been checked-in after suffering a stroke. When her mother started displaying some symptoms consistent with Covid-19, she was moved into a room with people who had tested positive for the virus.
“She is lying in there surrounded by people who have that Covid disease. They are all mixed together in the emergency room,” Sandra said, as she yelled outside the hospital and fought back tears. “There are people in there with the virus who are contaminating others.”
Tests later showed she had contracted coronavirus. Sandra believes she was infected while she was hospitalized, although this could not be confirmed by CNN.
‘No rules or norms’
Dr. Mário Vianna, the president of the Amazonas Doctors’ Union, said hospital maternity wards have become high-risk areas for the spread of coronavirus infections.
“The maternity wards became one of the main areas for infections because there isn’t an isolation plan,” Vianna told CNN Brasil. “There are no rules or norms for isolation.”
Vianna also said doctors are being exposed to the coronavirus, due to low staffing levels and lack of personal protection equipment (PPE), and that many go to work in fear of dying or of losing colleagues.
“Lives are being lost due to the incompetence of several authorities,” Vianna said. “I blame the deaths of healthcare professionals on the government, which didn’t provide any protections. It’s a criminal situation.”
The Health Ministry did not respond to CNN’s questions on whether doctors were ill-equipped to handle the pandemic.
Vianna himself tested positive for coronavirus on April 21st and recently appeared in a hospital bed, with breathing tubes in his nostrils during a May 1st video message of support to fellow medical workers.
The gravity of the pandemic has not always been publicly acknowledged by Brazil’s top leadership.
President Jair Bolsonaro has compared the coronavirus to a “little flu,” pressured governors and mayors to lift quarantine measures in order to boost the economy and has attended rallies and protests in Brasilia with massive crowds of supporters.
On Tuesday, Bolsonaro predicted that Health Ministry data would show that “the worst had passed.” In fact, that national death toll announced later that day was the highest on record. On Wednesday, it rose again.
Mayor Neto said that he thinks the worst is still ahead, predicting that infections could peak in Manaus in May.
Manaus is globally known as the gateway to the Amazon rainforest region, and Neto has called on world leaders and climate activists, including Greta Thunberg, for help. In a video posted to his personal Twitter account, Neto asked Thunberg to help bring awareness to the situation in Manaus. Thunberg retweeted a photo on May 5th showing mass graves in Manaus to her 4.1 million followers with the hashtag #SOSAMAZONIA.
Health Minister Nelson Teich traveled to Manaus on Monday, where he visited several hospitals and met with local authorities, including Neto. The Health Ministry on Monday said it hired and brought in 267 medical professionals to support the city’s health teams. The Ministry also provided additional PPE, including N95 masks, goggles and hand sanitizers.
To date, Brazil has confirmed more than 125,000 coronavirus cases and at least 8,536 deaths. At least 9,243 of these cases have been registered in the state of Amazonas, with more than half of those cases in Manaus, according to the latest data released by the state’s health secretary.
CNN’s Alessandra Castelli in Atlanta and CNN’s Shasta Darlington in São Paulo contributed to this report