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Manaus is one of the hardest hit cities in Brazil, which officially has lost more than 23,000 lives to the coronavirus. But in the absence of evidence proving otherwise, relatives like das Graças are quick to deny the possibility that COVID-19 claimed their loved ones, meaning that the toll is likely a vast undercount.
As ambulances zip through Manaus with sirens blaring and backhoes dig rows of new graves, the muggy air in this city by the majestic Amazon River feels thicker than usual with such pervasive denial. Manaus has seen nearly triple the usual number of dead in April and May.
Doctors and psychologists say denial at the grassroots stems from a mixture of misinformation, lack of education, insufficient testing and conflicting messages from the country’s leaders.
Chief among skeptics is President Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly called COVID-19 a “little flu,” and argued that concern over the virus is overblown.
Asked by a reporter about the surging number of deaths on April 20, Bolsonaro responded, “I’m not a gravedigger, OK?”
He has resisted U.S. and European-style lockdowns to contain the virus’ spread, saying such measures aren’t worth the economic wreckage. He fired his first Health Minister for supporting quarantines, accepted the resignation of a second one after less than a month on the job, and said that the interim minister, an army general with no background in health or medicine, will remain in charge of the pandemic response “for a long time.” In a cabinet meeting last month, a visibly enraged Bolsonaro insulted governors and mayors enforcing stay-at-home measures.
The president’s political followers are receptive to his dismissal of the virus, as determined as he is to proceed with life as usual.