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In pictures: COVID has Brazil in a stranglehold

Nicolas Martin | Jonathan Alpeyrie
April 2, 2021

Photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie has traveled to crisis and conflict-riddled regions around the world. His latest assignment took him to Brazil, a country which has been ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic.

A 60 year old man is buried in the largest cemetery of South America situated in the Botafogo quarters of Rio de Janeiro
At least 320,000 people have died in Brazil of COVID-19 since the pandemic began early last yearImage: Jonathan Alpeyrie

More than 3,800 people die every day of COVID-19 in Brazil, according to the latest figures, making the country a global coronavirus hot spot. Photographer Jonathan Alpeyrie has been giving the many victims a face. Here, at one of South America's biggest cemeteries in the Botafogo district of Rio de Janeiro, family members observe physical distancing measures as they mourn a 60-year-old who succumbed to the virus. His remains were brought to the grave by people in protective clothing.

People carry a coffin at the cemetery in  Rio de Janeiro
Image: Jonathan Alpeyrie

With more than 12.7 million confirmed infections, Brazil is among the countries worst affected by the pandemic. Though the average per capita rate of infections is lower than, for example, Italy, France or Poland, the overall death toll of more than 320,000 people is second only to the United States. Infections spread easily in Brazil's poor favelas, where people live in cramped quarters and struggle with unsanitary conditions.

A woman looks out of a door in a favela as a man disinfects the area outside her apartment
Image: Jonathan Alpeyrie

In many parts of the country, the public health care system has been stretched to breaking point. Hospitals in almost all states have reported overloaded intensive care units. In northern Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, oxygen supplies are scarce. Germany recently supplied 80 ventilators to Manaus to ease pressure on the local hospitals. The state-run Oswaldo Cruz Institute in Rio de Janeiro has warned that the country may see a daily death toll of 4,000 to 5,000 people.

Several people stand next to an ambulance
Image: Jonathan Alpeyrie

Jonathan Alpeyrie, originally from France, is known for his photographic work in war zones. His assignments have taken him to Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan and conflict zones in Africa. This series, taken in late 2020 and early 2021 in northern Brazil and Rio, highlights the suffering and devastation wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic. Manaus has been hit especially hard — dozens of new graves must be dug at the cemetery each day to bury the increasing number of victims.

A man carries a grave marker made out of blue wood in new part of a cemetery in Manaus
Image: Jonathan Alpeyrie

A COVID variant, P.1, was first detected in Manaus in November. Researchers fear the mutation could be twice as infectious as the original variant. In the most recent wave of the pandemic, the virus reached even the most remote regions of the country, infecting in particular Brazil's Indigenous population. These young people live in stilt houses about an hour's boat ride away from Manaus. COVID-19 has threatened their livelihoods: part-time jobs in the state capital have dried up, and tourists are staying away as well.

Three boys hold a snake next to small wooden houses on stilts
Image: Jonathan Alpeyrie

Researchers now believe the rampaging P.1 variant could soon spread throughout Brazil and make up most of the country's cases. Many are holding President Jair Bolsonaro responsible for this deadly second wave — his government has downplayed the dangers of the virus since the beginning of the pandemic. Bolsonaro has refused to impose countrywide preventive measures such as night curfews and curbs on retail and restaurants, which some states have in place. As a result, many people have turned to their faith for support. In this favela in Rio de Janeiro, a priest blesses a woman.

A pastor blesses a woman in the Santa Marta favela of Rio de Janeiro
Image: Jonathan Alpeyrie

This article has been translated from German.