Where Covid kills the young: Brazil shows what may await others
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Rodolpho Sousa, a 28-year-old Brazilian lawyer, had been working from home near Rio de Janeiro when, in late February, one of his clients was jailed. Covid was hitting the prison and he was worried about her, less about himself. He went there to get her out.
His cough started a few days later and wouldn't quit. He went to an emergency clinic where, his lungs down to half their capacity, he was diagnosed with Covid. In the two days he waited for a hospital transfer, he was witness to an infernal scene – patients his age dying on either side of him.
"There was a woman who was 23 next to me and we spoke," he recalled. "She started coughing and coughing, and the doctors closed the curtain between us. Later they took her out in a black body bag. I was completely terrified."
Like in most countries, the pandemic in Brazil hit the elderly and immuno-compromised first and hardest. But in the past couple of months, the nation that has stood out as nearly a worst-case-scenario for caseloads, deaths and public policy, has shown where the global plague may be headed: for the young.
In March, 3 405 Brazilians aged 30 to 39 died from Covid, almost four times the number in January. Among those in their forties, there were about 7 170 fatalities, up from 1 840, and for those 20-29, deaths jumped to 880 from 245. Those under 59 now account for more than a third of Covid deaths in Brazil, according to research firm Lagom Data. As the elderly get vaccinated, their deaths have fallen by half.
There are many causes for the alarming shift but one appears to be that the young have trouble accepting they are at risk.
"Because they're young and the virus first infected the elderly population, they don't believe or don't want to believe that it can be serious," said Dr Suzana Morais, a cardiologist in Rio de Janeiro. "I've seen many young patients who are surprised. Others are aware but take risks."
It's also true that after months of government aid and staying home, the money is running out and people have to work again, exposing them to risk in a society that hasn't done well at imposing masks and distancing.
After Sousa recovered, his mother got Covid severely and survived at home. His father, 63, a marathon runner, was hospitalised. He died last week.
Meanwhile, across the country in Brasilia, Andréia Santana became a widow. The 29-year-old works as a maid and was not excused despite her boss showing Covid symptoms after a trip to the beach in early March.
"I needed the job," she said. Her husband had been unemployed for two years and was taking care of their three children. He got government aid in 2020 but not this year.
All five were infected, her husband the worst. He went to the hospital. It was crowded, as was the other hospital to which he needed to be transferred. It took a week, and he died there a day later. He was 42.
In Loco, a platform specialised in monitoring social distancing in Brazil, says that, in most states, the social isolation rate hovered around 40% in March, higher than at the beginning of February but still well below the 70% officials say is needed to slow transmission. Another issue is the Brazilian variant of the virus that appears to be more contagious.
Numbers have started to stabilise but Brazilians act as if the virus were gone.
During a virtual meeting of executives from Brazil's biggest soccer teams, the head of the Soccer Confederation said nobody wants to stop the matches and championships. Days earlier, one of his main players was among 200 arrested in a clandestine casino where the buy-in for a poker game was 40 000 reais ($7 200).
Lago Paranoá, a lake in the centre of Brasilia, is seeing crowds filter again onto boats for weekend parties – their masks around their necks.
Rio de Janeiro lifted most bans earlier this month, when it saw a drop in patients, reopening non-essential business and allowing for dining in bars and restaurants. Sitting on the beach is prohibited, but the Saturday after restrictions were lifted, hundreds had fanned out across the sand in Ipanema, taking in the rays. They kicked around soccer balls and vendors hawked beers as authorities zipped by on four-wheelers, leaving everyone undisturbed.
"People are totally tired," said Pedro Melo, a 27-year-old lawyer who, with his girlfriend, was among the beachgoers. The couple got infected in October but only had mild symptoms, like most of their social circle, and were willing to go out again. The night prior, they went for cocktails in Copacabana.
"What we want are vaccines, but since that's not possible we're trying to have something of normal life," he said.
Further down the beach, Lucas Alcantara, 31, a communications coordinator, sipped beer under a umbrella with a friend. "This is my contradiction," he said. "I understand the risks, and share the concerns, but I need to find some relief."
Elen Geraldes, a sociologist at the University of Brasilia, says a big problem is the lack of guidance from the top, a mishmash of policies that vary from state to state and city to city with little enforcement. President Jair Bolsonaro often minimizes the seriousness of the disease, saying the economic toll will be far worse than that of the virus. Last weekend, like he's done throughout, Bolsonaro gathered a crowd of supporters, shaking hands and kissing babies.
Cases have stopped rising. Deaths, which still routinely top 3,000 a day, will take longer to stabilize, according to health experts. Vaccinations have picked up, though they remain below the daily rate pledged by the government of one million a day.
"We don't have a unified message from the government about the real need for social distancing," said Morais, the Rio cardiologist. "In the end, young people don't respect this much. You have an economically active population that needs to work and they simply don't have many options."