Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro said Friday that “all means” are being made available to help the country’s largest state, Amazonas, where hospitals are running out of beds and oxygen tanks amid soaring coronavirus infections.
His claim came a day after Brazilian Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello described the healthcare system in the Amazonas state capital, Manaus, as being in “collapse.”
“I would say yes, there is a collapse in healthcare in Manaus. The line to get a hospital bed has grown a lot, today we have about 480 people waiting in line. And the reality is that there is a lower supply of oxygen – not an interruption, but a lower supply of oxygen,” he said during a Facebook live with Bolsonaro on Thursday.
Doctors and nurses have been quoted in local news reports as saying patients are dying of asphyxiation in the city’s hospitals because of a lack of oxygen.
Bolsonaro posted on his official Facebook page Friday that “all means have been made available to the population of Manaus.”
Pazuello has been in Manaus for three days, the President said, and the federal government has provided “oxygen, supplies and patient transfers to federal hospitals.”
The Brazilian air force delivered six cylinders of liquid oxygen, totaling 9,300 kilograms, to Manaus early Friday. It also flew out nine patients and five doctors from Manaus to the city of Teresina, in the northeastern state of Piauí.
Speaking in Brasilia, Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão said there was no way to foresee the collapse in the public health system and blamed a new variant of coronavirus that is circulating in the city.
“You cannot predict what would happen with this strain that is occurring in Manaus. Totally different from what had happened in the first half,” said Mourão.
Last September, research led by the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) recommended a lockdown after confirming that Manaus was experiencing a second wave of the disease. The government of Amazonas denied the second wave of Covid cases at that time.
Manaus, globally known as the gateway to the Amazon region, also suffered badly in the first wave of the pandemic between April and May, when its public health and funeral systems collapsed.
Brazil’s Covid-19 death toll is the second highest in the world, behind only that of the United States. According to data from Johns Hopkins University, there have been more than 207,000 deaths from Covid-19 in Brazil and more than 8.3 million reported cases of coronavirus.
A Human Rights Watch (HRW) report published Wednesday accused Bolsonaro of having “tried to sabotage public health measures aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19” earlier in the pandemic.
The Amazonas state government announced emergency measures Thursday – including a nighttime curfew, ban on mass transit and the airlifting of patients to other Brazilian states – as it grapples with the latest crisis.
“Today we are in the most critical moment of the pandemic, one that has no precedent in the state of Amazonas. We are facing a lot of difficulty in getting medical supplies. And as everyone is following, our main difficulty now has been getting oxygen,” Amazonas Gov. Wilson Lima told a news conference Thursday.
Demand for oxygen is up fivefold over the past 15 days, according to the state government.
Some 235 patients will be airlifted to five other Brazilian states, the state government tweeted Thursday. It said the transfers were necessary due to the state’s oxygen shortages.
Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza said Thursday he had spoken with Lima and had offered immediately to send oxygen tanks. “Latin American solidarity above all!” he tweeted. Lima responded: “The people of Amazonas thank you!”
Minister: Vaccinations to start ‘in January’
Covid-19 vaccinations have yet to get underway in Brazil, despite its strong track record on national vaccination programs.
Speaking Thursday, Pazuello said Brazil would begin to inoculate people in January but did not specify a date.
“In January we will start vaccinating. In the beginning with 2, 6, or 8 million doses,” the health minister said. “And in February, we will have mass production, and our National Vaccination Program, which we’ve been doing for 45 years, will get ahead of everyone in the whole world, including the United States.”
The Brazilian Health Regulatory Agency (ANVISA) will meet on Sunday to decide whether to give emergency approvals to the Oxford/AstraZeneca and Sinovac vaccines, according to the official news agency, Agencia Brasil.
Bolsonaro has publicly second-guessed the urgency of immunization, disparaging “the rush for a vaccine” in comments made last month.
“The pandemic is really reaching its end, the numbers have showed this, we are dealing with small rises now,” he said, according to CNN Brasil. “But the rush for the vaccine is not justified because you are playing with people’s lives.”
In its World Report 2021, Human Rights Watch recalled how the right-wing President repeatedly downplayed the danger posed by the coronavirus, by calling it “a little flu” and by spreading misleading information about the pandemic.
Bolsonaro “refused to take measures to protect himself and the people around him; disseminated misleading information; and tried to block states from imposing social distancing rules,” said the report.
“His administration attempted to withhold Covid-19 data from the public. He fired his health minister for defending World Health Organization recommendations, and the replacement health minister quit in opposition to the president’s advocacy of an unproven drug to treat Covid-19.”
Anna Livia Arida, Brazil’s associate director at Human Rights Watch, also recognized the role of other government institutions such as the Supreme Court and Congress in helping to “block many, although not all, of Bolsonaro’s anti-rights policies.”
Ministry defends record on rights
According to CNN Brasil, the country’s Ministry of Women, Family and Human Rights issued a statement Wednesday arguing that the HRW report “ignores measures taken by the government to protect human rights during the pandemic.”
Numerous projects aimed to help children, adolescents, women and the elderly were mentioned in the statement, saying those were “a form of government aid to the socioeconomic developments that occurred in the pandemic,” according to CNN Brasil.
CNN has reached out to Bolsonaro’s office for comment.
Meanwhile, a study by the Barcelona Institute for Global Health, published Friday, found that “the spread of Covid-19 in Brazil overwhelmed the health systems in all the country’s regions, particularly in areas where they were already fragile.”
The findings, based on analysis of the first 250,000 patients admitted to hospital in the country, “reveal that a large percentage of Covid-19 patients that were hospitalised in Brazil required intensive care and respiratory support, and many did not survive.”
The researchers also found regional differences in mortality, with patients in the north and northeast of the country faring worse than those in the south.
The United Kingdom imposed a ban Friday on arrivals from Brazil, a dozen Latin American countries, Cape Verde and Portugal, which has strong travel links with Brazil, amid concerns that the new Brazilian coronavirus variant could spread to the UK.
British authorities are already battling to contain a more contagious variant first detected in the UK late last year.
UK Transport Minister Grant Shapps said that scientists who had examined the mutation discovered in Brazil were concerned “not so much that the vaccine won’t work, in fact scientists think that it will work, but just the fact that it’s more spreadable.”
CNN’s Tatiana Arias contributed to this report.