In past years, when the smoke from the burning Amazon jungle reached the indigenous community of Diuna Livramento, in Brazil’s Amazonas state, people drank tea made from local medicinal herbs that soothed their lungs.
But as the 2021 “fire season” approaches, local leader Asterio Martins Tomas fears that this time herbal tea might not be enough, as many in his community – including himself – are still struggling with the after-effects of COVID-19.
“I still feel tired, and my chest is in pain. When I breathe, it hurts,” said Tomas, 60, who was infected with the coronavirus in March and briefly hospitalized.
The smoke, when it comes, will make life harder, he fears.
“It affects our lungs, our health. And there’s no escape, as everywhere there’s smoke.”
Worsening forest and bush fires are having increased and not-yet-well-studied health impacts on people exposed to them, according to a report by the Global Climate and Health Alliance, a consortium of health organizations from around the world.
The report, made public on Wednesday, analyzed communities affected by fires in Canada, Australia and Brazil. It found that exposure to forest fire smoke was linked to more emergency room visits.
In the long term, it also led to higher vulnerability to the most serious effects of COVID-19, researchers found.
The rate of coronavirus deaths among indigenous people in Brazil’s Amazon is nearly 250% higher than in the general population, according to a June study by IPAM, the Amazon Environmental Research Institute.
“More and more people are at risk from the long-term consequences of forest and bush fires,” said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance, in a statement.
The report recommends that local health authorities “plan ahead for the return of smoke-induced illnesses while health services continue to battle with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
But there’s not much planning going on, said Mario Vianna, president of the Amazonas state doctor’s union.
“A lowering of the air quality in the North region (of Brazil) during a pandemic of a respiratory disease is an explosive combination,” said Vianna. “I have not seen any protocol provision or guidance to prepare for this possibility.”
Fires and deforestation in the Amazon rainforest have surged since right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took power in 2019, calling for more development in the region.
Scientists have warned that the dry weather could make the forest fires especially bad this year.
Brazil is home to around 60% of the Amazon forest, the largest rainforest on Earth. Approximately 27 million people live in the Amazon basin, and some 10 million of these live in areas of poor air quality, the Global Climate and Health Alliance report noted.
As Brazil’s fire season starts in earnest, the next few months will be critical, said Jerrimar Soares Montenegro, a nurse with Sinderon, the nursing association in the state of Rondonia, in the Amazon region.
Hospitals in the state’s capital, Porto Velho, get crowded every year – from August to November – with patients with respiratory problems caused by forest fires, Montenegro said.
“And now with COVID, it will be practically uncontrollable,” Montenegro predicted.
Joilson Karapana, a leader at an urban indigenous settlement in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, considers himself recovered after having contracted the coronavirus about a year ago. But many on his community are still struggling, he said.
“Our community has 700 families, over 3,000 people. A lot (of those infected) ended up with respiratory problems. Their recovery was not 100%,” he said.
He now fears that when the smoke comes, breathing will get harder for them.
“Only preserving the environment could stop that,” he said.