MANAUS, Brazil (Reuters) – Brazil’s Air Force delivered emergency supplies of oxygen on Friday to the jungle state of Amazonas, and premature babies were to be airlifted to other states from local hospitals overwhelmed by a devastating new surge of COVID-19 cases.
Doctors were using their own vehicles to transport patients, as Manaus citizens sought to buy oxygen tanks on the black market, local media reported. Desperate relatives, protesting outside city hospitals, said patients had been taken off ventilators as oxygen ran out.
Sao Paulo governor João Doria said some 60 premature babies in incubators needed to be relocated to other parts of Brazil, while officials said hospitals needed three times more oxygen than was available.
Manaus was one of first cities to reel from the pandemic in Brazil, which has the world’s second highest COVID-19 death toll after the United States. Critics of President Jair Bolsonaro said the grim situation there was just the latest example of his poor handling of the crisis.
The country has yet to begin vaccinations, is dealing with a snowballing second wave and a new, potentially more contagious, coronavirus variant that originated in Amazonas and prompted Britain on Thursday to bar entry to Brazilians.
Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain who has downplayed the pandemic and opposed stricter social controls to halt its spread, said on Friday the government had already done what it could in Manaus.
“The problem is terrible there. Now, we have done our part,” he told supporters outside the presidential palace, adding that the military was installing a temporary hospital.
Critics drew parallels between the lack of oxygen and the failure to begin vaccinations in Latin America’s biggest country. The government wants to start administering shots next week, but has yet to announce an official start date.
A government-chartered plane was due to fly to India on Friday to collect 2 million AstraZeneca doses. But that shipment may face delays while India decides whether to loosen export regulations as it begins its own inoculation drive this weekend, a source briefed on the matter said.
India will be able to decide on exports of coronavirus vaccines within the next few weeks, Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told Reuters this week.
“The policy of course is we will start the rollout in India. We have our own challenges,” Jaishankar said.
The worldwide coronavirus death toll surpassed 2 million on Friday, according to a Reuters tally.
With pressure on the president growing, some Brazilians on social media called for a nationwide pot-banging protest from home windows in the afternoon, hashtagged #BRAZILSUFFOCATED. The pot-banging protests were a hallmark of the early days of the pandemic, and usually signal a drop in support for Bolsonaro.
With emergency services pushed to a breaking point, Amazonas Governor Nelson Lima announced a 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. statewide curfew to fight the spread of coronavirus.
Health authorities said oxygen supplies had run out at some hospitals and intensive care wards were so full that scores of patients were being airlifted to other states.
The Air Force flew six cylinders with 9,300 kilograms of oxygen from São Paulo state to Amazonas state capital Manaus in northern Brazil, where it will be distributed to hospitals, according to a statement from the military. Another cargo is being loaded in São Paulo on Friday, destined for Manaus.
The Air Force said a flight carried nine patients and five doctors from Manaus to Teresina in northeastern Brazil, and evacuations will continue with two planes taking patients to six cities.