'The country is adrift': echoes of Spanish flu as Brazil's Covid-19 catastrophe deepens

Photo: Anadolu Agency / Getty Images
As a child who grew up in São Paulo in the 1940s, Drauzio Varella remembers his grandmother's stories of how Spanish flu devastated the workers' community that they called immigrants.
"So many people died that families left people outside on the sidewalks, and the carts came by every morning to pick them up and take them to mass graves for burial," recalled Varella, who later became Brazil's best. well-known doctor.
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Related: Brazil sentenced to historic tragedy by Bolsonaros virus reaction - top doctor
More than a century after the 1918 disaster, South America's largest country is again shaken by a devastating pandemic, and Varella is incredulous.
"Nobody thought that this could happen. Maybe they imagined it theoretically - that a kind of virus could occur, ”said the 77-year-old oncologist, author and broadcaster. "But even when this virus appeared, we didn't think it would cause such a tragedy."
The exact scale of the Brazilian Covid-19 tragedy remains unclear - but the story told by official statistics is becoming more miserable day by day.
Brazil passed Britain as the country with the second highest death toll in the world on Friday: 41,901 deaths since the first death were confirmed in São Paulo on March 17.
A projection by the University of Washington found that another 100,000 Brazilians could die before August, which may place Brazil ahead of the United States as the country with the most deaths.
As the catastrophe worsens, anger grows over President Jair Bolsonaro's behavior, whose confused and dysfunctional handling of a pandemic he has described as "fantasy" makes Boris Johnson's broad response seem sober and efficient.
"This is the worst public health crisis we have faced - and it has come at a time when we have the worst government in the world," said Daniel Dourado, a public health expert and lawyer at the university from São Paulo, who believes thousands of lives could have been saved by a faster and less unpredictable response. "The country is driving."
There are uncanny and painful parallels between the effects of Spanish flu - which historians say killed between 35,000 and 100,000 Brazilians - and the damage the coronavirus is now causing.
Claudio Bertolli Filho, author of a book on the 1918 pandemic, said that the then heads of state and government at first played down the unknown influenza - just like Bolsonaro dismissed the coronavirus as a "cold."
Even then, the authorities tried to hide the true extent of the disaster - as Bolsonaro's Ministry of Health was accused - until the determination of Brazilian journalists made it impossible to do so.
In Brasilândia, São Paulo, residents are waiting for food donations. Photo: Amanda Perobelli / Reuters
Then as now, doctors pushed for untested and potentially dangerous drugs, just as Brazil's populist leader promoted the use of hydroxychloroquine despite limited scientific evidence of its effectiveness. Bertolli Filho said a quack from São Paulo was famous for injecting mercury into Spanish flu patients. "He killed many people - and yet many believed."
As the Spanish flu spread through the cities of Recife to Rio, religious leaders also touted miraculous cures, just as powerful televangelists today promise supporters to save Covid-19 with holy water and supernatural seeds.
Related topics: “Enormous Disparities”: Coronavirus mortality rates reveal Brazil's deep racial inequalities
And in 1918, like today, the mysterious illness sparked an explosion of rumors and conspiracies, including claims that German submarines had secretly spread the frailty along the Brazilian coast. (In fact, it arrived on an English merchant ship called Demerara).
But perhaps no parallel is more cruel than the way both disasters wiped out the idea that pandemics randomly selected victims.
Bertolli Filho said that the election of Brazilian President Rodrigues Alves to Spanish flu in 1919 was widely cited as evidence that epidemics were equal opportunities.
Francisco de Paula Rodrigues Alves, a former Brazilian president who died of Spanish flu before his second term. Photo: GL Archive / Alamy Stock Photo
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In fact, cemetery records showed that most of the 5,000 dead in São Paulo were working class, industrial areas like Mooca, Ipiranga, and Brás, where Varella's grandmother watched the body collectors at work. Today, the hardest hit areas are workers' groups like Brasilândia, Freguesia do Ó and Capão Redondo, where many do not have the luxury to distance themselves socially or to work from home.
In Rio, disadvantaged western neighborhoods such as Campo Grande, Realengo and Bangu have seen some of the highest fatalities, while densely populated favelas such as Rocinha and Complexo da Maré have also been punished.
"The truth is, not even a pandemic is really democratic," said Bertolli Filho.
Varella, who still lives in his grandmother's house, said it was too early to know what the price would be for the poor in a country where the richest 1% control 28% of wealth.
“The situation in Brazil is so worrying and unique because when you look at the path of the epidemic - from China to Asia and then to Europe and the United States - Brazil was the first encounter with a country that was suffering from serious social problems suffers from our inequality it does. "
"It will hit other unequal countries like India and Pakistan, but this was the first - and we are seeing this now in a country where 13 or 14 million people live in precarious conditions and in great poverty."
A woman walks past water suppliers and disinfects the Turano favela to curb the spread of the coronavirus in Rio. Photo: Silvia Izquierdo / AP
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The omens were not good. "I've been waking up every day since the epidemic started, thinking about what will happen and how," said Varella.
“The biggest problem we are seeing across Brazil right now is the epidemic that is spreading on the outskirts of cities and their rundown centers, where homes and homeless people live.
"We have no idea where this will end - no idea at all," he admitted. "Because we are now in the middle of the spread."

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