Brazil’s intensive care physicians have seen more and more young patients arrive at their wards in recent months, with one in two under the age of 40. The new, more contagious Brazilian variant, known as P1, seems to affect younger people without pre-existing comorbidities.
More than half of the patients in Brazilian intensive care units in March were under 40, according to the Brazilian Association of Resuscitation Physicians. The more contagious Covid-19 variant, known as P1, claims younger victims every day, many without previous medical problems.
Between January and March, the number of deaths between 30 and 39 percent jumped to 353, according to the latest report from the Covid-19 Observatory. At the head office of the Fiocruz Medical Institute, chief pulmonologist Margareth Dalcolmo, who is coordinating the study on the new variant, says that not a day goes by without seeing more alarming numbers. And a key question: Why does the Brazilian variant require more victims among young people?
Dalcolmo and her colleagues already have some clues. “The profile of seriously ill patients has changed. Firstly, due to the development of the pandemic and the lack of lock-in measures, we are seeing more and more young people on the streets. It is those who have to go to work and who do not know the absence of a social life So they meet in bars, she says.
In short, says Dalcolmo, it is not that the new variant prefers young people, but it is the young people who go out and are therefore more vulnerable.
Widespread poverty has also proved to be a key factor. A monthly state subsidy of about 50 euros per household, introduced at the beginning of the pandemic, is too low to meet the needs of the poorest families. In the face of this situation, families do the best they can: grandparents stay at home to take care of their grandchildren while their parents are outdoors and often gather on public transport to look for work, mainly informal jobs.
It is easy to say to young Brazilians: ‘Stay at home’. But in practice and with 20 percent of the population below the poverty line, they have to go out to make money, says Dalcolmo.
Further complicated matters, Brazil has experienced delays in its vaccination due to delivery and distribution problems. Only about 8 million people, or 3.8 percent of the population, have been fully vaccinated so far.
‘We can not stop living’
President Jair Bolsonaro has refused to impose nationwide lock-in measures. It is therefore left to individual state governors and mayors to decide for themselves. In a large country with 27 separate states, it has become impossible to have a homogeneous and coherent health policy. Even when São Paulo was closed, bars and restaurants in Rio de Janeiro were allowed to reopen last weekend until 21.00.
After 14 days of forced closure, the streets of Lapa in Rio are lively. Civilian police patrolling between two narrow terraces look worried. “This opening, I think, is what makes the pandemic gain ground,” said Deputy Inspector Gama. Over the past two weeks, Gama and his team have overseen or closed over 17,000 bars, social gatherings and underground parties.
The Instagram account @Brasilfedecovid (Brazil stinks of Covid), which has more than 400,000 followers, regularly publishes videos and photos of parties in cramped rooms or on boats. Young parties seem to challenge the virus that has prevented them from enjoying events such as Rio’s carnival and a summer sun.
On a fairly empty beach in Rio during the April sun, some young surfers from Babilonia favela share this view: “We can not stop living. We are already risking our lives due to lost bullets or raids by the police and on top of that we have to stop “home, leave to die, without living or enjoying the sea? We know the virus is there, but we can not die at home either.”
This is what worries the pulmonologist Dalcolmo and her colleagues: Young people tend to take possible symptoms a little too lightly and end up in the emergency room far too late. Many fear that the number of hospital deaths – which are already soaring – obscures another reality: that more and more Brazilians, for fear of going to the emergency room, are dying at home.