For months, Natalia Pasternak implored Brazilians to take science and the coronavirus seriously, in a marathon of TV appearances, newspaper columns, live broadcasts and podcasts.
“I gave interviews at 2 am,” said the microbiologist and broadcaster who heads a civil society group called the Question of Science Institute.
As the epidemic raged, Pasternak condemned President Jair Bolsonaro’s chaotic and anti-scientific response; exposed fake news and unproven treatments such as chloroquine and ozone therapy; and urged his country’s 210 million citizens to comply with quarantine measures aimed at controlling the coronavirus.
“The reopening… is a recipe for disaster,” the 43-year-old scientist warned on a recent talk show, as lockdown efforts died down despite the growing number of infections and deaths.
Yet five months after Brazil’s first confirmed death, Pasternak is disheartened and fears her work has been in vain.
On Saturday, the official death toll reached 100,000, against 10,000 in early May. Similar number of lives lost in Sri Lanka’s 26 calendar years war or conflict in Yemen. Brazil has recorded more than 3 million infections – just behind the United States.
“We have failed – as a country, as a government, as a society – to get the message across in a clear, transparent and educational way,” she admitted.
Like many Brazilians, Pasternak blames Bolsonaro – a Trump-loving populist who calls Covid-19 ‘a bit cold’, lost two health ministers during the crisis and sabotaged containment measures he said are too much harmful to the economy.
“As president, he bears personal responsibility. His behavior has been deplorable, ”said the pro-science activist.
“It really disgusts me to see my country go through this. To have the worst possible leadership at the worst possible time… As a scientist and a citizen, I find it so sad to think about how this government destroyed my country, ”she added, her voice broken.
Pasternak is part of an open and dynamic community of scientists, journalists and opinion formers struggling to convey the gravity of the Brazilian crisis and identify possible escape routes.
Since March, she has sounded the alarm – and petitioned the government – by writing more than 50 articles, appearing on 19 podcasts and giving nearly 300 interviews. “My role is to do all I can to educate people about how science works and why we must trust science to guide our decisions… because science is the best tool we have to fight this pandemic . “
But with Bolsonaro defending ineffective treatments such as hydroxychloroquine and social distancing, the fight has been uphill.
“He set a terrible example that confused the population about the true severity of the pandemic and the solutions that actually work,” complained Pasternak.
“If we had implemented decent quarantine measures, we could have prevented at least half of those 100,000 deaths,” she said, recalling how, in March, an Imperial College screening claimed that urgent action could reduce the death toll in Brazil to 44,000.
“We’re now more than double – and we’re still in the middle of the pandemic.”
Officials and supporters of the Bolsonaro administration put a more positive spin on his response.
“Brazil has not done as bad a job as some claim,” insisted the pro-Bolsonaro governor of his second most populous state, Minas Gerais, earlier this month.
An Orwellian federal government propaganda campaign called Placar da Vida (“The Dashboard of Life”) deceives the number of people “saved” by its efforts – but ignores the dead.
But by most measures, Brazil’s response has been disastrous. Latin America’s No.1 economy has the second highest number of deaths in the world, the second highest number of infections and the 11th highest number of confirmed deaths per million people. Since late May, the seven-day moving average of confirmed deaths in Brazil has been near or above 1,000 per day.
Despite this, many areas are reopening, with Rio’s beaches shoppers flocking to malls and rates of social isolation falling.
“The danger is that we normalize that – that we get to a point where people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s stabilized. Everything is fine. It’s finish! Pasternak warned. “No, it’s not over. It is not normal that 1,000 people die every day from an infectious disease.
“Our role as science communicators… is to keep showing the facts and in a way that engages people, gets people moving and lets them know that it always happens.
The Pasternak Institute is one of many groups trying to educate the public.
Since April, an online memorial called Inumeráveis (Countless) has been celebrating the lives of victims to highlight the human cost of the epidemic.
“We are trying to fight this [trivialisation] with love, ”said Rayane Urani, the 31-year-old moderator of the project.
In recent days he has commemorated Cleyton Barbosa da Silva Souza, 29 (“a ladies’ man who couldn’t be alone for long”), Eduardo Orlando das Neves, 73 (“the owner of a mustache who changed his color when he ate acai”) and Helen Dias, 38 (“a dedicated nurse who was a star and saved many lives”).
“It’s not just numbers. He was someone’s father. Someone’s mom. Someone’s love, ”Urani says. “At the end of the day, it’s all about people.”
As Brazil take their final cruel step, Pasternak said she was disheartened to think things could have been different.
“It could have been avoided,” she says. “Not completely, of course. But 100,000 people could have been avoided.
A large network of community health workers from national health services could have been mobilized to educate Brazilians, isolate people based on their symptoms and trace their contacts.
A proper quarantine could have been put in place, as in Germany and New Zealand, “and we would now be in the same place as these countries – reopen safely, with almost normal life.
« [But] we don’t have guidelines, we don’t have leadership – we don’t even have [permanent] health Minister. The federal government is showing absurd negligence… and this is one of the main reasons why Brazil is now in this situation.