Disasters & Accidents

Fires amplify effects of Covid-19 in Brazilian Amazon

By Carlos Meneses Sánchez

Sao Paulo, Aug 26 (efe-epa).- Smoke from wildfires and the Covid-19 pandemic are combining to create a public health crisis among the more than 20 million people living in Brazil’s portion of Amazonia, according to a report released Wednesday.

“‘The Air is Unbearable’: Health Impacts of Deforestation-Related Fires in the Brazilian Amazon” represents the findings of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), the Institute for Health Policy Studies (IEPS) and Human Rights Watch.

Based on official health and environmental data, the study estimates that last year’s blazes in Brazilian Amazonia led to 2,195 hospitalizations for respiratory illness.

Roughly half of those hospitalized were 60 or older, while infants under the age of 12 year accounted for 467 of the 2,195 patients, who spent three days in the hospital on average.

“This is only a very small fraction of the much-greater damage that can be seen in the region,” HRW researcher Luciana Tellez Chavez told Efe.

Reducing deforestation is key to decreasing the number of fires, HRW said, blaming the policies of Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, for an 85 percent surge in deforestation in 2019, his first year in office.

Brazil’s Amazon region had 89,178 fires last year, up 30 percent from 2018.

The smoke generated by the blazes “is rich in fine particulate matter, a pollutant linked to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as premature death,” HRW said.

HRW, IPAM and IPES found that during August 2019, close to 3 million people in 90 municipalities across the Brazilian Amazon faced air pollution levels above what the World Health Organization has identified as the risk threshold.

Things got worse in September, when 4.5 million people in 168 municipalities were subjected to harmful air pollution.

“Every year there is a public health crisis that is totally avoidable if Brazilian authorities enforce environmental law as they are supposed to,” Tellez Chavez said.

This year is shaping up to be even worse than 2019, as official figures show that the number of fires was up 19.6 percent in June and 28 percent in July on an interannual basis.

“And with more fire, more smoke in the air and more hospitalizations,” IPAM director Ane Alencar told Efe, pointing out that there is “much more material to burn” thanks to a 33 percent increase in deforestation during the 12 months ending July 31.

Responding to international criticism about its environmental stewardship, the Brazilian government reactivate the National Council of Amazonia, chaired by Vice President Hamilton Mourao.

The administration has also mobilized military units to enforce environmental regulation.

But the army’s “mediocre” efforts have done nothing to reduce deforestation and the use of soldiers for this purpose is an “extremely expensive” stop-gap solution, Tellez Chavez said.

The health effects of the fires are increasing the strain on health-care systems already struggling to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

Brazil is second only to the United States in Covid-19 cases, with 3.7 million, and fatalities, with 116,580.

Inhaling the smoke from the wildfires aggravates coronavirus symptoms, leading to an increase in serious cases and deaths, the report said.

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