Young people should not fret about coronavirus, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro declared on Tuesday as he announced he had contracted the illness.
But Hugo Dutra was youthful and fit: a dance-addicted millennial with no underlying medical conditions. He died in Rio on 18 April, after eight days on a ventilator.
“This virus can kill anyone, of any age,” said his father, Marcio Antonio Silva. “My son was 25, healthy, worked three jobs and never ever got sick – and he’s not here any more.”
“The thing that most hurts me is Bolsonaro’s indifference to our grief… It was repulsive to hear him yesterday,” added the 56-year-old chauffeur. “He said young people were not in danger – so why did my son die?”
“Unless they have some serious health problem, the chances of under-40s suffering more serious consequences from the infection are close to zero,” Bolsonaro claimed, insisting it was time to re-open Brazil’s economy despite its death toll soaring to more than 66,000.
But experts dispute Bolsonaro’s claim younger people are almost completely exempt.
“The president’s remarks do not hold water. The message should be one of protecting everyone,” said Carlos Machado, a researcher at the respected Fiocruz health research institute in Rio.
Machado said there were indeed fewer severe cases among young people – but it was not true they faced a near zero risk.
According to the Rio newspaper Extra, almost 3,500 Brazilians under the age of 40 have died from Covid-19. If that group was a country, it would rank as the 25th worst hit, ahead of Brazilian neighbours such as Argentina and Bolivia.
On Tuesday São Paulo’s health secretariat said more than a quarter of its 16,000 fatalities were people under 60, the news program Jornal Nacional reported.
In a recent interview Margareth Dalcolmo, a Fiocruz pneumologist, said experts had expected Covid-19 to “rejuvenate” in Brazil, because of its young population, 87% of which is under 60.
“It isn’t a disease of the elderly here, even though fatality and mortality rates are higher among older people. It affects younger people – and this is because there’s a concentration of younger people among the more deprived sectors of society into which the epidemic has migrated,” Dalcolmo said.
“Being young doesn’t mean being immune, it means there’s a smaller chance of the case worsening,” Machado said. “Even for children there’s a risk. It’s rare, but it’s possible.”
In an interview with the O Globo newspaper Renato Kfouri, from the Brazilian Pediatrics Society, called Bolsonaro’s claim a complete distortion, saying: “One third of serious cases involve children over the age of 10, teenagers and adults who are under 60.”
“This illness is a danger to people of all ages – there is no way of predicting who will fare badly.”
Few would have predicted Hugo Dutra’s death. Physically active, he had a five-year-old son and held three jobs: as a DJ, a manager at an IT company, and a dance instructor who frequented the wooden-floored dancehalls of downtown Rio with his father.
But he fell ill on 3 April, three weeks after Brazil’s first confirmed Covid-19 death – and a few days after Bolsonaro again flouted social distancing measures, declaring: “We’ll all die one day.”
Five days later, Dutra’s condition worsened and his father took him to a clinic in the early hours of the morning suffering shortness of breath. He was admitted and the next day sent his father an ominous message. “Dad, I don’t think I’m going to make it,” it said.
Silva raced to the clinic, snuck inside and managed to wave at his gravely ill son from a distance. “I just wanted him to see me, to know I was there with him,” he remembered. But on 10 April, as public health experts warned Bolsonaro was dragging Brazil towards a calamitous crisis, Dutra was transferred to the Ronaldo Gazolla hospital in west Rio.
He would die there a week later, connected to a ventilator. “Only God knows what I’m feeling. We were so close,” his father mourned. “I wake up in the middle of the night trembling.”
Silva’s pain did not end with his son’s premature death.
Nearly two months later he found himself at the centre of a notorious and politically-charged incident, when a 70-year-old Bolsonaro supporter vandalized a beachside memorial to Covid-19 victims.
Silva had been strolling down the beach as activists built the memorial in an attempt to clear his head. “I just needed to breath a little after another sleepless night,” he said.
But when he saw the attack he sprung into action, and began re-erecting the crosses, shouting: “Respect the pain of others.” “I would have felt ashamed of myself if I hadn’t reacted in that way,” he said.
For defending the memorial, Silva was branded a “communist”.
“I don’t know what it means to be a communist,” he admitted. “But if respecting others and showing empathy means being a communist, then that’s what I am.”
Silva said he was disturbed at how the toxic political climate that has gripped Brazil since Bolsonaro’s 2018 election was eclipsing coronavirus’ human toll.
“The country has gone mad. People of all religions and all political inclinations are dying. We should all be united in our pain,” he said.
“These people think they represent Brazil,” he said of the Bolsonarista who desecrated the seaside memorial. “But this isn’t what our people are. This isn’t what Brazil is.”
The night before his son’s death, Silva remembered waking up at home in the middle of the night. He dreamed he was lying down in a hospital bed beside his son. The two men were hugging.
“It was such a real dream. I know that there and then we came together,” he said. “And I know too that it was our farewell.”
Additional reporting by Tom Phillips