The Observers

Brazilian activists beg for oxygen tanks via social media as Covid-19 rages through Manaus

Several groups of volunteers in Manaus, Brazil have been working together to get supplies of oxygen to hospitals overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients.
Several groups of volunteers in Manaus, Brazil have been working together to get supplies of oxygen to hospitals overwhelmed with Covid-19 patients. © Observers

A brutal second wave of Covid-19 has been sweeping through the city of Manaus, northwestern Brazil, since early January. The city’s overwhelmed hospitals are facing acute oxygen shortages. By mid-January, social media was ringing out with cries of distress from medical workers and family members. In response to this health crisis, local volunteers have launched a campaign called "SOS Amazonas" to support the region’s hospitals.

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"Please, if you have the means, oxygen”: On January 14, Thalita Rocha, a Manaus resident, posted a series of videos appealing for help on Instagram. She filmed the videos outside of a hospital. "There’s no oxygen at all left in the care unit,” she says, sounding panicked.

Rocha’s post was shared by people all across Brazil. In an interview, she said that she filmed her videos in front of the hospital in Redençao while her mother-in-law was being treated for Covid-19 in the intensive care unit. 

In a desperate bid to save her, Rocha and her husband bought an oxygen tank, but it was too late. 

"It was horrible. I don’t have the words to describe the scene— like something out of war zone. People were suffering, dying because they couldn’t breathe. Imagine. They were trying to breathe in air and couldn’t do it,” she said in an interview with RFI

Hospitals in this city in the heart of the Amazon rainforest were overwhelmed by the spike in cases in January and quickly ran out of oxygen. More and more haunting stories like Rocha’s started appearing online and in the media. 

Horrified by the situation, several groups and associations in Manaus launched an emergency campaign called SOS Amazonas. They raised enough money to buy canisters of oxygen, transport them to Manaus by plane or boat and distribute them to intensive care units. 

"We’ve never seen a situation like it,” said Gustavo Melo, one of the people who coordinated this campaign. 

In our episode of The Observers, he explained: 

We launched this campaign to help people out by providing them with food and water. But the campaign ended up going viral after it was shared by a certain Instagram account. That meant that we were able to help out with the primary concern— that people were dying due to a lack of oxygen. It was an unprecedented situation. With the money that was donated, we were able to start buying cylinders of oxygen and bringing them in from other states in Brazil.  

We negotiated with the airline companies. We pick up the donations of oxygen tanks at the airport. We also work with volunteers and the police to hand out the cylinders at hospitals. We post lots of information on Instagram. We also do live streams where we explain what we are doing in order to be completely transparent. 

On February 4, the Brazilian Attorney General opened a preliminary investigation into the potentially deadly mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis by President Jair Bolsonaro and his Minister of Health, Eduardo Pazuello, in Manaus and the neighbouring state of Pará.

This move came after a Supreme Court justice on January 25 authorised an investigation into the health minister in order to determine his level of responsibility for the collapse of the health system in Manaus during the pandemic's second wave. 

More than 228,000 people have died of Covid-19 in Brazil. The country has seen the world's second highest death toll from the virus and ranks third in number of cases.