SÃO PAULO – After a second wave of COVID-19 hit Brazil at the beginning of January, the healthcare system has been struggling to cope, with the medical oxygen supply in the city of Manaus being depleted.

The entire county has been challenged by the health crisis, with more than 1,000 deaths daily, but the situation is especially critical in Manaus, the largest city in Amazonas State.

The state, which has a population of 4.2 million, registered on January 14 the highest number of daily positive COVID-19 results since the beginning of the pandemic, with 2.080 new confirmed cases. The number of daily deaths is also getting close to the historical peak. On January 6, the State counted 86 deaths (the largest number of deaths on a single day was 102 on May 6).

Manaus, the state capital, has 2.7 million inhabitants in its metropolitan area and the largest number of cases.

“Many deaths are not officially recorded and are out of the statistics. On January 15 there were 213 funerals in the city, and the historical average daily number is 28,” Father Luis Miguel Modino, a Spanish-born missionary living in Manaus, told Crux.

According to Modino, the situation is “dramatic.”

“People are dying at home due to the hospital system’s collapse. The police has been escorting trucks loaded with oxygen in order to avoid turmoil,” he said.

Deacon Afonso Brito, executive secretary of Caritas Manaus, described how people had gathered together on the street near a government clinic in his neighborhood.

“The clinic in Galileia, in the northern part of the city, cannot receive any new patients. People gathered in front of it on the street, desperately seeking medical attention, but the oxygen is depleted and there’s nothing the staff can do,” he told Crux.

Nearby cities like Iranduba are suffering with the same problems, Brito explained.

The lack of oxygen is also impacting patients with other health issues, like premature babies.

“Scientists alerted the authorities this would happen long ago. The state government failed to adequately prepare for it,” he said.

According to a story published by the Brazilian newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo, Amazonas’s healthcare authorities have known since Nov. 23 that the amount of clinical oxygen available in hospitals would be insufficient to meet the growing demand created by the pandemic.

President Jair Bolsonaro’s Healthcare Minister, Gen. Eduardo Pazuello, has also been criticized by the Brazilian press for his mismanagement of the Amazonas crisis.

The newspaper Folha de S. Paulo reported that amid the oxygen shortage, Pazuello has organized a taskforce of doctors who support the use of hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin, drugs which have been promoted by Bolsonaro as effective in the treatment of COVID-19 despite the lack of evidence they are effective, to visit clinics and convince the medical staff to use them.

On Jan. 15, Archbishop Leonardo Steiner of Manaus released a video imploring the authorities to provide oxygen for the city’s patients and asking politicians to “leave aside the aggression, the denialism, the politics of divisionism.”

“We, the bishops of Amazonas and Roraima, appeal to you: For God’s sake, send us oxygen. Provide oxygen. People cannot continue dying due to the lack of oxygen and ICU beds,” he said in the video.

Archbishop Leonardo Steiner. (Credit: CNBB.)

According to Steiner, the public healthcare system has been long abandoned in Manaus and is now “very weak.”

“During the first wave of COVID-19 in the city, we already saw how the healthcare system was unable to treat every patient in need. Now, things are even worse. The lack of oxygen is something very serious. There has been a general insufficiency of planning by the government,” he told Crux.

The Archdiocese of Manaus suspended in-person celebrations until the end of January. Meanwhile, Manaus Caritas has been struggling to meet the needs of immigrants and the homeless during the pandemic, relying on donations of food and medicine.

Steiner also blamed the “COVID-19 denialism expressed by part of society” for the current situation.

“There has been a large agglomeration of people during the electoral campaign [legislative elections were held in November] and before Christmas,” he added.

In December, when a lockdown was announced by the state government, shop owners and businessmen took to the street and protested.

Bolsonaro, who tried to downplay the seriousness of the coronavirus and has often refused to wear a mask, has advocated against the adoption of social distancing measures from the start, and has continually criticized state governors who imposed lockdowns for their impact on economy. Most of his supporters, in Manaus and elsewhere, have been failing to abide by social distancing and other guidelines imposed to fight the spread of the virus.

“Being ostensibly against the social distancing measures means to project an image which doesn’t correspond to reality. A person like that shouldn’t be leading the executive power of the country,” Steiner told Crux.

He added there’s a general “lack of ethics” among the politicians in power.

“One needs ethics to take care of life. Without ethics, we cannot have public policies to take care of the neediest in society,” the archbishop said.