“Losing our history”. How mass COVID-19 mortality in the city of Fortaleza is harming people of all
By Thatiany Nascimento, Diario do Nordeste, Fortaleza, Brazil
Translated by Thais de Carvalho Rodigues Lopes
University of East Anglia, UK
This blog is based on a translated version of an original newspaper report by, published in Portuguese on 3 July 2020 at thatiany.Nascimento@svm.com.br and published at https://diariodonordeste.verdesmares.com.br/metro/covid-19-obitos-de-idosos-deixam-efeitos-sociais-nas-demais-geracoes-1.2962472. It has been translated and posted in a modified format with the author’s permission.
In May the Global Platform posted a “letter from” the city of Fortaleza in Ceará State, Brazil (https://www.corona-older.com/post/letter-from-brazil-covid-19-and-older-people-in-fortaleza-brazil-s-worst-hit-city). That letter paid particular attention to the efforts of the city government to limit the pandemic’s effects on older people. This new blog, taken from a subsequent newspaper report, discusses the wider social and cultural impacts caused by the sudden loss of thousands of older people in Fortaleza and the wider region.
In Ceará State in the North-east Brazil, older people account for the vast majority of deaths resulting from the new coronavirus epidemic. Between March and June there were 4,578 deaths of people aged 60 years or older. For every ten Covid-19 deaths, seven were among older people.
The slow-walking figures have disappeared. So has the storytellineir past, it impairs the memory of a shared social history.
In the neighbourhood of Parquelandia, in Fortaleza city, Seu Magalhães no longer greets his acquaintances with his characteristic kindness. His car parts store is now closed, after more than 30 years in operation. Seu Magalhães has left 3 children, 4 grandchildren and his wife. José Raimundo Vieira Magalhães was 76 years old. He was one of the thousands of older people who have died as a consequence of COVID-19 in Ceará, where (according to estimates from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), 12.3% of its 9 million residents are aged 60 or more.
On June 5th, after days hospitalised at the General Hospital of Fortaleza, Seu Magalhães lost his life. His granddaughter, journalist Camila Magalhães de Holanda, cannot mourn the body of Seu Magalhães. The pandemic that mostly takes older people is also brutal towards any attempt of closure through ritual. All they have now are memories. Camila describes her grandfather as a lively man, full of joy and always positive. She and her brother are the oldest grandchildren.
‘We were the only grandchildren for many years. We experienced much more with my grandpa than my 7-year-old and 1-year-old cousins have been able to. My cousin will not have the amazing grandpa I had, she won’t know what it feels like when your grandpa takes you to the park, or to school, or when he cooks for you. She won’t know what it feels like to go for a ride in a buggy with grandpa’, she says. Those are gaps shared with plenty of other households.
In Ceará, of a total of 6,180 deaths due to COVID-19 between March and June, 45% were people between 60 and 79 years old. Another 30% were more than 80 years of age. Apart from being the most common victims of COVID-19, older people were also the age group with the largest rate of infection during the pandemic. In March, for every 100 people infected in Ceará, 17 were 60 years old or more. By the end of June, this ratio had grown to 22.
But what exactly makes older people so susceptible to COVID-19? Their main vulnerability is the natural aging of the immune system, according to Jarbas Roriz Filho (Professor in the Faculty of Medicine in the Federal University of Ceará and member of the COVID-19 Committee of the Brazilian Society of Geriatrics and Gerontology). In older people, there is a reduced operation of the immune system.
‘We have protective barriers in our organism, cells that go straight to fight the microorganism that enters our body. Afterwards, the immune system generates an immunologic memory to create antibodies. Thus, in all these stages, the response capacity of an older body is more restricted, and makes older people more vulnerable to infections as a whole’, he says.
The doctor highlights other effects that go ‘beyond age’. For instance, individual habits, like those older people who are active and have healthier habits.
‘There is chronological age and biological age. A person may have advanced [chronological] age but a healthy organism, with a good level of health. A person who is 80 years old, who is active and has fewer health issues, has a larger life expectancy than someone who is younger but has several chronic illnesses and unhealthy eating habits’, says the doctor.
Beyond health issues, the pandemic generates social and emotional dilemmas. In this tragic and unique moment, the age group that is already marked by stigma and deprivation, is again severely affected. Gerontologist and Professor in the School of Social Work in the State University of Ceará (UECE), Adriana de Oliveira Alcantara, calls attention to attitudes towards old age that preceded the pandemic:
‘When we talk about old age, we notice a lot of prejudice in a country that always exalted youth even before the pandemic. Gerontophobia has always existed. Today, we have an expiration date. Does the value of life diminish with age? No. And, for this reason, it is not ok to accept the normalisation of death in a group determined by a person’s age’.
She stresses that: ‘Aging with family is difficult and generational contact not always shared. Does one want to know about the world of the other? How can you interest a generation fascinated by WhatsApp chats, ask them to listen to the stories of ‘your time’? On the other hand, do older people want to know about young people’s worlds? The solution must be intergenerationality’.
The Professor sees the pandemic as an opportunity for people to review their ideas and behaviours. She adds: ‘What is the place of older people in our lives? How do we understand the isolation of those people from their families before and after the pandemic? Is it really a situation forced on us by COVID-19? We have now something that has provoked new ideas about our sense of time’.
There is no community, no future, without cherishing our legacy and its transformations, productions and transmissions’, says Adriano Almeida, sociologist and member of the Managing Council of the “Memory Space” in Grande Bom Jardim. It is in this neighbourhood that he and many other residents of the outskirts of Fortaleza have witnessed the loss of so many people to COVID-19, people that were a reference in their communities.
Adriano stresses: ‘Death is the disappearance of a social being. With this person, we lose a perspective about the facts, about the reality. With their departure, a window to the landscape of life is closed, or at least a version of the truth is shut down. That is why since 2012 our Memory Space has gathered information about the guardians of memory in this territory. He adds that, in this moment, ‘We cannot fully understand’ because we are ‘in the eye of the storm, and we are not physically together: the pain and the grief are restricted to family and close friends. Only later will we feel the shock and the emptiness, the scale of the loss to our heritage created by COVID-19’.