SÃO PAULO – According to the Archbishop of Manus in Brazil, the official figures of coronavirus deaths “are doubtful,” noting a huge rise in funerals in his archdiocese.
The city has reported 2,935 cases and 267 deaths. The city’s public healthcare system has been the first to collapse in Brazil. There are no ICU beds available and the number of daily deaths has grown so much that the prefecture has been burying people in common graves.
“Manaus used to have 30 burials daily before the pandemic. Now there are more than 100 funerals every day,” Archbishop Leonardo Steiner told Crux.
On April 26, there were 142 burials in the city, according to the newspaper Folha de S. Paulo.
Steiner sad the Church has insisted on the need to social distancing measures, and suspended all public celebrations as of March 23.
“But society isn’t taking social distancing seriously. With the examples of the president, who has broken social distancing several times, people concluded that it’s an exaggerated measure,” he said.
President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the threat posed by the virus, comparing it to a “little flu.” He drew criticism last week when he snapped “So what?” after a journalist asked him about the 5,000 people who have died of COVID-19 in Brazil.
The official death toll has since risen in the country – to over 6,700 out of over 97,000 confirmed cases.
Steiner said that in the past few years the government hasn’t invested enough resources in the local public healthcare system.
“In 2016, there was a case of corruption involving precisely the State’s health department. It’s a chronic problem,” he said.
The Church has been providing food and shelter to homeless people in a joint initiative with Manaus’ prefecture. Supplies are also being distributed to poor families.
“Many Catholics are working in hospitals and helping homeless people on the streets,” Steiner added. Church members are in touch with indigenous people living in the city and demanding that the State takes the adequate measures of care for them.
“But what we can do as institution is not much. I feel impotent,” Steiner said.
The archbishop revealed Pope Francis called him on April 25 to show solidarity and express his concern with the high number of deaths and with the health of the indigenous peoples.
The number of cases of COVID-19 in the Pan-Amazon region has grown exponentially since the beginning of April, with an upward curve of deaths throughout the region.
Poor infrastructure, ineffective healthcare systems and other deficiencies have prompted the Catholic Church throughout the region to make huge efforts to assist the most vulnerable.
Since the end of March, the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (Repam) has been compiling the official number of infected and dead in each country of the region. On April 27, there were 13,729 confirmed cases and 791 deaths.
“The forms of registering and publicizing COVID-19 cases are different in each country. There have been denunciations of unreported cases in the region, particularly in Brazil,” Repam’s executive secretary, Mauricio López, told Crux.
According to López, the common denominator in the region is the lack of an adequate healthcare infrastructure.
“There are insufficient supplies in the cities and the systems are collapsing. In many Amazonian territories, there’s no alternative other than facing the situation in the community with no help at all,” he added.
Brazilian Cardinal Cláudio Hummes, the honorary president of REPAM, said the region is “very unprepared” for the coronavirus, adding the Amazon is “neglected and abandoned by its own governments as it has always been – not to mention the constant destruction it suffers and the repression of the ones who fight for their rights and for life.”
“The mortality rate in the region is growing, especially in the big cities, but also in the middle-sized ones. The healthcare system is already collapsing in many of them. In this situation, it’s up to the States to implement responsible strategies to take care of the most vulnerable, as the indigenous peoples,” he told Crux.
Church officials are fearful over the spread of the coronavirus among indigenous peoples.
“They have less epidemiological resistance, especially the peoples who have been recently contacted. The disease may be unstoppable in these cases,” said López.
COVID-19 already reached a few indigenous groups, such as the Yanomami, where a 15-year-old boy died.
Other epicenters of the pandemic in the Amazon are the Brazilian cities of Belém and Macapá and the Peruvian city of Iquitos.
Despite the fragility of the Amazonian Church, the local clergy and lay missionaries have been totally engaged in helping the most vulnerable people, said Mauricio López.
“In the local level, Caritas has been providing humanitarian help, distributing food and other basic items to people that have been affected by social distancing measures,” he told Crux.
Religious orders are probably the Catholic organizations that are reaching the most distant and inaccessible communities, helping them taking precautionary measures.
“The episcopate is also making use of all means available to collaborate. At this point, we’ve been noticed that two Amazonian bishops have been infected,” said López.
REPAM is working to provide assistance in several fronts. In Bolivia, it’s distributing food with the local Caritas in order to help 240 families during the pandemic.
In Ecuador, the rupture of an oil pipeline in an Amazonian area on March 7 has increased the suffering of hundreds of families that already had to deal with the pandemic.
“With the late response given by the government, REPAM Ecuador allied with an organization of indigenous peoples and is trying to find ways of supporting the impacted families,” explained López.
The network is also working along with the Association of Universities Entrusted to the Society of Jesus in Latin America and with the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon River Basin in order to develop a public health program to mitigate the effects of the pandemic in the region after the disease’s peak is reached.
“We’ve been requesting the help of international organizations as the German-based Adveniat in order to allow the national REPAMs to expand on humanitarian assistance projects,” López added.
Echoing Pope Francis, Hummes said the Church “must be indignant.”
“It must denounce all the great deficiencies and injustices that the people from that region are suffering,” the cardinal said.
“The Church must seek to be side by side with the indigenous peoples in their daily lives, so they can feel that it’s with them, that it’s an ally that comforts them and that encourages them. The Church must pray with them, strengthen their hope and their desire to fight for justice, for more solidarity, and for more resources to subsist,” he told Crux.