Between January and March the death toll among those between 30 and 39 jumped 353 percent, according to the latest report from the Covid-19 Observatory. At the headquarters of the Fiocruz medical institute, chief pulmonologist Margareth Dalcolmo, who is coordinating the study on the new variant, says not a day goes by without seeing more alarming numbers. And one key question: Why does the Brazilian variant claim more victims among young people?
Dalcolmo and her team are still on the lookout for hints. “The profile of critically ill patients has shifted.” First, as the pandemic progresses and lockout procedures are not implemented, we are seeing an increase in the number of young people on the streets. They are the ones who have to go to work and can no longer bear the lack of a social life. As a result, they meet in bars,” she explains.
In brief, Dalcolmo claims that the current variant does not prefer young adults, rather that it is the teens who go out and are therefore more exposed.
Poverty has also been identified as a significant cause. A monthly government subsidy of about €50 per family, implemented at the beginning of the pandemic, is insufficient to address the needs of the poorest households. Faced with this scenario, families do the best they can: grandparents remain at home and care for the grandchildren, while parents venture out, often congregating on public transportation to look for employment, primarily casual occupations.
“It’s easy to say to young Brazilians, ‘Stay home’. But in practice, and with 20 percent of the population below the poverty line, they have to go out to earn a living,” says Dalcolmo.
Further complicating matters, Brazil has experienced delays in its vaccination rollout due to supply and distribution problems. Only around 8 million people, or 3.8 percent of the population, have so far been fully vaccinated.
‘We cannot stop living’
President Jair Bolsonaro has declined to impose national curfews. As a result, local state governors and mayors must make their own decisions. It has become difficult to provide a homogeneous and consistent health programme in a large world with 27 independent nations. Even as So Paulo closes, Rio de Janeiro’s bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen last weekend before 9 p.m.
After 14 days of forced shutdown, the streets of Rio’s Lapa are bustling. Civil police officers patrolling between two packed terraces seem worried. “This reopening, I think that’s what makes the pandemic gain ground,” says deputy inspector Gama. Gama and his staff have tracked or taken down over 17,000 pubs, social events, and underground parties in the last two weeks.
The Instagram account @Brasilfedecovid (Brazil stinks of Covid), which has more than 400,000 followers, regularly posts videos and pictures of parties in crowded rooms or on boats. Young revellers appear to be challenging the virus that has prevented them from enjoying events such as Rio’s Carnival and a summer of sunshine.
A few young surfers from the Babilonia favela expound on this view on a relatively barren beach in Rio under the April sun: “We can’t just stop living. We are still in danger of losing our lives as a result of stray bullets or police attacks, and now we have to hide at home, left to die, without being able to survive or enjoy the sea? We are aware of the virus’s presence, but we cannot die at home.”
This is what pulmonologist Dalcolmo and her colleagues are concerned about: Young adults have a tendency to dismiss potential signs and end up presenting at the emergency department way too late. Many fear that the already-increasing number of hospital deaths conceals another reality: that more and more Brazilians are dying at home because they are afraid to go to the emergency room.