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COVID-19 Update: Focus on Brazil

14 May 2020

As COVID-19 continues to spread around the world, many people are unable to shelter in relative safety. With increased infection rates among homeless populations in Brazil, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) teams are adapting activities to provide aid to the most vulnerable.

MSF staff conduct health promotion activities and basic consultations in Rio de Janeiro, in areas where access to public health services is scarce. © Mariana Abdalla/MSF

When COVID-19 began to spread in Brazil, those in upper and middle classes were the first to become infected. With the virus now being spread throughout the general population, those at particular risk are those without a safe place to shelter or without access to adequate hygiene.

People who are unemployed face daily challenges in securing regular meals, as well as access to soap and clean water. Those fortunate enough to have a roof usually share the same room with several people. The most vulnerable live in the streets, where following physical distancing guidelines is impossible. In Boa Vista, in Roraima state, tens of thousands of people unable to access the official shelters and are living in spontaneous settlements or on the street. They have little or no access to healthcare and basic hygiene and are particularly exposed to contamination. Many people have to continue their activities to try to make ends meet, despite the potentially deadly risk.

If we are unable to identify them early enough, patients in more serious condition that are on the street will die on the street.

Ana Letícia Nery
MSF Project Coordinator, São Paulo

To provide assistance to vulnerable groups in Boa Vista, our teams are focused on providing assistance to Venezuelan migrants and asylum seekers by regularly visiting the informal shelters to provide hygiene and physical distancing guidance to residents. Together with partner organisations, we are working to expand access to water in formal and informal shelters and distributing hygiene kits. The work of medical professionals in Boa Vista gives special attention to people with pre-existing diseases, as they are more susceptible to infection. MSF staff are also providing training on infection prevention and control measures to health teams that will work at the field hospital set up by the state government.

Our efforts in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are concentrated in sites attended by the homeless population. Our teams are providing medical consultations for screening of COVID-19, and referring patients in more serious conditions to hospitals. We're focusing on homeless people, migrants and refugees, drug users, and the elderly. The work also includes education on hygiene measures and is being carried out in partnership with local authorities and organisations that are already involved with the street population in São Paulo

“If we are unable to identify them early enough, patients in more serious condition that are on the street will die on the street,” said Ana Letícia Nery, MSF´s Project Coordinator in São Paulo.

Countering misinformation

Water and sanitation areas set up at MSF’s health promotion activities for the homeless in Rio de Janeiro. © Mariana Abdalla/MSF

In addition to the complexity of the pandemic itself, Brazilians are also enduring a lack of information, scepticism, and even denial of the existence of COVID-19. The disagreement between President Bolsonaro, who criticizes limitations to movement and business activities, and the State and city governments who have tried to implement necessary restrictions, has created a confusing environment. The contradictory views are obstructing the adoption of life-saving physical distancing measures.

…unfortunately we have witnessed the diffusion of contradictory guidelines that hinder compliance with the necessary measures.

Ana de Lemos
Executive Director of MSF-Brazil

“The experience of other countries where the pandemic arrived before Brazil has shown the importance of adopting physical distancing measures,” says Ana de Lemos, Executive Director of MSF-Brazil. “It is important that we slow down the rate of contagion as much as possible so that we can reduce the number of serious cases that reach the hospitals at the same time.

“At times like this, it is crucial to have a clear orientation, but unfortunately we have witnessed the diffusion of contradictory guidelines that hinder compliance with the necessary measures.”

Supporting the healthcare system

A consultation during MSF’s health promotion activities for the homeless in Rio de Janeiro. © Mariana Abdalla/MSF

Our work in Boa Vista was originally established with the aim of supporting the local health system and helping it cope with the increasing demand. With the pandemic, MSF is maintaining this project and adapting activities to help overcome the challenges brought on by COVID-19.   

“Even before the arrival of the pandemic, Roraima's health system was already fragile, and this situation has worsened things even more,” says Michael Parker, MSF Project Coordinator in Boa Vista. “We are working to try to lighten the burden on the local system, both in relation to COVID-19 and other diseases.” 

Physical distancing is essential to reduce the pace of infection and avoid further collapse of the Brazilian health system.

 

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Right now, Médecins Sans Frontières is providing much needed support and medical care in over 30 countries to counter the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
Our teams are also gearing up to confront potential outbreaks in the hundreds of areas we were already working before the pandemic struck. We are deploying medical staff, sending supplies and applying nearly 50 years of experience fighting epidemics to protect the most vulnerable and save lives.
 
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