Covid-19: In Brazil, young people have become the variant’s prime targets

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Brazil’s intensive care doctors have seen more and more young patients arriving at their wards in recent months, with one in two under 40 years old. The new, more contagious Brazilian variant, known as P1, seems to be affecting younger people with no pre-existing comorbidities.  

More than half the patients in Brazilian intensive care units in March were under 40 years old, according to the Brazilian Association of Resuscitation Physicians. The more contagious Covid-19 variant known as P1 is claiming younger victims every day, many with no prior medical issues.

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 colleagues already have some clues. “The profile of seriously ill patients has changed. First, because of the evolution of the pandemic and the lack of lockdown measures, we see more and more young people in the streets. They are the ones who have to go to work and who cannot stand the absence of a social life any longer. So they meet in bars,” she says.

In short, Dalcolmo says, it is not that the new variant prefers young people, but it is the youth who go out and are therefore more exposed.

Widespread poverty has also proven to be a key factor. A monthly government allowance of around €50 per household, introduced at the start of the pandemic, is too low to meet the needs of the poorest families. Faced with this situation, families do the best they can: grandparents stay at home to take care of the grandchildren while parents find themselves outdoors, often congregating on public transport to look for work, predominantly informal jobs.

“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 refused to introduce nationwide lockdown measures. It is therefore left up to individual state governors and mayors to decide for themselves. In a vast country of 27 separate states it has become impossible to have a homogeneous and coherent health policy. Even as São Paulo shuts down, bars and restaurants in Rio de Janeiro were allowed to reopen last weekend until 9pm.

After 14 days of forced closure, the streets of Lapa in Rio are lively. Civil police officers who are on patrol between two crowded terraces look concerned. “This reopening, I think that’s what makes the pandemic gain ground,” says deputy inspector Gama. Over the past two weeks, Gama and his team have monitored or shut down more than 17,000 bars, social gatherings and underground parties. 

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.

On a fairly empty beach in Rio under the April sun, a few young surfers from the Babilonia favela expound on this view: “We cannot stop living. We are already risking our lives because of stray bullets or raids by the cops, and on top of that we have to stay at home, left to die, without living or enjoying the sea? We know that the virus is there, but we cannot die at home either.”

This is what worries pulmonologist Dalcolmo and her colleagues: Young people tend to take possible symptoms a little too lightly, and end up arriving at the emergency room much too late. Many fear that the number of hospital deaths – already skyrocketing – hides another reality: that more and more Brazilians, for fear of going to the emergency room, are dying at home.