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In virus-hit Amazon, fire season threatens overburdened health system

by Fabio Zuker | @zukerfabio | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 26 August 2020 21:46 GMT

Siblings Rosalino de Oliveira and Miraceli de Oliveira try to protect themselves from the smoke as the fire approaches their house in area of Amazon rainforest, near Porto Velho, Rondonia State, Brazil August 16, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

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Smoke from Amazon fires drove more than 2,000 hospitalizations last year - and this year beds are already full with COVID-19 patients, health experts say

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By Fabio Zuker

SAO PAULO, Aug 26 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Smoke from deforestation-related fires in the Brazilian Amazon last year hospitalized more than 2,000 people and led to a "significant negative impact on public health" in the region, researchers said Wednesday.

With similar serious fires expected this year, on top of a deadly COVID-19 pandemic, heavily hospitalisations are likely to be repeated, "potentially collapsing" an already overburned health system in the region, they said in a report.

"We are watching a situation similar, or even worse, than last year," said Ane Alencar, director of science at IPAM, the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, one of the institutions behind the study.

More than 4,500 square kilometres (1,730 sq miles) of Amazon land deforested this year or cleared but not burned last year could be set on fire during this year's dry season, which normally runs from July to September, according to the new study.

In July, the Amazon region saw a 28% increase in fires compared to the same period last year, it said.

Researchers said hospitalizations from smoke from the 2019 burning season represented only "a fraction" of the actual health problem, with many other people turning to out-patient clinics for help or potentially unable to access care.

Miguel Lago, executive director of IEPS, Brazil's Institute for Health Policy Studies, called the north of Brazil the largest area of "clinic deserts" - areas of limited healthcare availability - in the country.

The Amazonian region around Manaus, for instance, has only 8.8 intensive care hospital beds per 100,000 people, below the Brazilian Health Ministry's recommendation of 10 beds, Lago said.

The Amazon has seen the worst outbreak of COVID-19 in Brazil, itself one of the countries most heavily impacted by the virus.

Only the United States has so far seen more cases and deaths, according to a Reuters tally.

"We have a very fragile health system in the Amazon, that has had a hard time facing the pandemic. So the coincidence of fires and the pandemic is very, very bad," Lago said.

More needs to be done to limit forest fires in the region this year, with the healthcare system already struggling to deal with coronavirus cases, he said.

"We should be doing everything we can to avoid hospitalization - and in this case fires are totally avoidable," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

A Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) fire brigade member attempts to control a fire in a tract of the Amazon jungle in Apui, Amazonas State, Brazil, August 11, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

PEAK FIRE SEASON

Fires are not a natural phenomenon in the Amazon, and are instead set to clear land, the report noted.

The burning season usually peaks in August and September, with IPAM observing more than 23,800 "hot spots" in the Amazon this week, Alencar said.

Last year, farmers, land grabbers and others eager to take advantage of President Jair Bolsonaro's stated desire to develop the Amazon may have produced a concentrated spike in fires as they took advantage of perceived new freedom to burn, she said.

This year, with the pandemic, fire season may be more spread out because "people who had this idea (to burn in a short period) are now thinking it's not that good to call so much attention," she said.

The Bolsonaro administration has ordered a moratorium on fires this year during the Amazon dry season, but "without more effective enforcement its impact is likely to be limited", the report said.

The country's president told South American leaders earlier this month that "they won't find any spot of fire, nor a quarter of a hectare deforested" in the Amazon, in stark contrast to his own government's data.

Bolsonaro has pushed to develop the Amazon, which he says will lift its people out of poverty. But environmental advocates blame his policies for emboldening illegal loggers, ranchers and land speculators.

The smoke study, published by Human Rights Watch, found 2,195 hospitalizations from respiratory illnesses attributable to fires in 2019, based on government health and environmental data.

Patients spent almost 6,700 days in the hospital as a result of smoke-related air pollution, with an average stay of three days, it found.

Douglas Rodrigues, a doctor specialized in indigenous health, said he worried the COVID-19 and smoke problems could feed each other, with greater deforestation often related to invasions of indigenous land, which could in turn boost infections.

Alencar said she feared another bad fire season could drive competition for limited hospital beds in the Amazon.

"Those who do not have (COVID-19) will be sick due to respiratory problems and will compete with those who have the disease," she said.

Battling smoke inhalation problems alongside "a pandemic that mainly causes breathing problems - this is very serious," she said.

Read more:

Indigenous land intrusions help drive higher virus death toll in the Amazon

As Amazon fire season looms, smoke and coronavirus could be 'a disaster'

COVID-19 fears grow for isolated indigenous people in Brazil's Amazon

(Reporting by Fabio Zuker ; editing by Laurie Goering : (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)))

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