The tragic story behind the ‘fake’ video of an elderly Brazilian woman with covid-19 that has spread around the world

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The video is distressing: an elderly woman lying on a hospital stretcher breathes hard. She wears a mask and does not have any type of mechanical ventilation device to assist her. The woman is in a plastic bag, the same one used to carry the bodies of dead people.

Since last week, the recording has gone viral. Numerous shares of the video claim that this is the case of an elderly patient referred to the morgue. According to these texts, which have no clear authorship, she would be buried alive to inflate the numbers of covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in the country.

The scene of the elderly woman panting on a stretcher has spread across the world. Also outside of Brazil, the video is accompanied by the statement that the patient was taken alive to the morgue and was rescued by her own family, who would have invaded the place.

The recording has been shared in other countries to illustrate the situation in Brazil, which faces the exponential growth of cases and has risen in the list of regions in the world with the most covid-19 records – the current numbers, released on Thursday (14 ), show that the country has more than 202 thousand confirmed cases and 14 thousand deaths.

Some publications say that the video of the elderly woman on the stretcher was recorded in Belém (PA). Others, however, affirm that the filming is in a hospital in Manaus (AM), one of the first Brazilian regions to face collapse in the health system due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Abelardo Santos Hospital, in Belém (PA), started to attend exclusively cases of patients with the new coronavirus Photo: Pedro Guerreiro / Agência Pará

Due to the controversies, the government of Pará issued a note to inform that the video was recorded in the Icoaraci district in Belém. Local authorities deny that the woman was in a morgue. “At no time was the patient referred to the morgue while alive,” says a statement from the State Health Secretariat of Pará. The disclosure of the video became the target of a police investigation.

The publications that claim that the woman was sent alive to a morgue are fake news. They have a denialist bias in relation to the new coronavirus, as well as other false news that has been used to impose the idea that the covid-19 figures in Brazil are inflated by authorities – like lying stories about empty buried coffins or with stones.

Waiting for service

The images of the elderly woman, whose identity was not disclosed, were taken while she was in the observation section of Hospital Abelardo Santos. According to a statement from the Government of Pará, the woman was waiting for a bed in the health unit, which is a reference in the fight against the new coronavirus in the state.

Pará has registered exponential growth in cases of the new coronavirus. As of Thursday (14) there were more than 10,800 cases and 1,063 deaths. It is the sixth state with the most cases and deaths in the country.

In view of the increase in registrations in the State, the Abelardo Barbosa Hospital, which until then was intended for highly complex procedures, started to serve only patients with the new coronavirus. Unit professionals report that the volume of patients has become very large since then.

Days before the video of the elderly woman lying on the stretcher went viral on the hammocks, another case in the same health unit reverberated across the country: a family opened the coffin of the relative who would have died and discovered that the body belonged to someone else. Even with a death certificate, family members found that the 68-year-old woman remained alive at the Abelardo Santos hospital, suspected of having contracted the new coronavirus. The woman remains hospitalized.

According to hospital representatives, the elderly woman arrived at the health unit on May 4 in serious condition and died the following day.
According to hospital representatives, the elderly woman arrived at the health unit on May 4 in serious condition and died the following day.

The case of the family that discovered that it would bury an unknown body was considered an example of the collapse in public health in Pará. The State Department of Health classified the situation as a consequence of the lack of structure, amid the growth in the number of sick and dead by the new coronavirus.

Technical director of Hospital Abelardo Santos, neurosurgeon Milton Bonny tells BBC News Brasil that the health unit is facing a serious problem of overcrowding. “The whole of Pará comes here. At the clinic there is an average of 1,200 people. It was a highly complex unit and, suddenly, it was open to the entire population” he says.

Amid the hospital’s capacity, the elderly woman who appears in the video that went viral on social networks was waiting for a bed in the red room of the health unit.

She was an old patient at the health facility, according to Bonny. The neurosurgeon details that the elderly woman had been hospitalized there before, before the pandemic. He says that, in one of the hospitalizations, she had to amputate a leg, due to diabetes.

According to the direction of Santa Casa de Pacaembu, the Social Health Organization (OS) responsible for Abelardo Santos, the elderly woman entered the unit on the night of May 4, in a very serious condition. She was experiencing severe shortness of breath and weakness. The management says the patient “received adequate medical assistance from the on-call team” as soon as she arrived.

Her condition was considered suspicious of the new coronavirus, due to respiratory problems and impaired lungs, identified by means of tomography. Health professionals did the RT-PCR test, to identify if she had been infected by the virus – the result is not yet ready. “The tests are sent to the Central Laboratory of the State and have been slow to arrive, as there are many cases,” says Bonny.

Throughout May 5, according to the hospital’s management, the elderly woman’s health condition worsened while awaiting hospitalization. Waiting for a bed, she was breathing hard, without mechanical ventilation.

According to the hospital’s technical director, many patients need to wait for a bed in the health unit, due to the high demand in the place.

While waiting, it was placed on a stretcher, inside a bag that is also used to carry corpses. “It is a bag that can be used for various things and was there lining the stretcher,” says Bonny. The director justifies that the apparatus would help to carry the elderly woman to another stretcher, due to her fragile state of health.

“It is a common practice in hospitals, even more (in) times of pandemic or epidemic, that change our concepts and we need to make adaptations”, says the director. He says that, due to the high demand, some faster alternatives are needed in patient care, such as the use of the bag for the transfer between stretchers – commonly, the procedure is done with a sheet.

The hospital management did not say how long the elderly woman was without respirators, waiting for a bed. The note issued by the Social Health Organization says that the elderly woman was subsequently evaluated by two doctors and sent to the red room, which serves critically ill patients. Then he did not resist and died.

The video

After the death of the elderly woman, the hospital management was informed about the video showing the patient waiting for care. In order to ascertain those responsible for the leak of the images, the case was reported to the police.

However, later, according to Bonny, a daughter, who accompanied the elderly woman in the hospital, said she was responsible for the filming.

“She said she sent that video to her brother to see how his mother was doing and she doesn’t know how the recording was leaked to other WhatsApp groups,” says the director. According to him, the patient’s family members do not know how the fake news came about that she was taken alive to the morgue. The report was unable to contact the elderly woman’s relatives.

The director regrets the false news that circulated in Brazil and other countries. “This confused the population. This situation is very boring”, he comments.

In a note, representatives of the OS that runs the Abelardo Santos Hospital lamented “the misuse of the patient’s image by people who did not respect the family’s pain”. The unit’s management classified the dissemination of the video as “an unethical, inhumane and punishable attitude”.

The Civil Police of Pará opened an investigation to investigate the leak of the video and also to investigate those responsible for the fake news that claims that the elderly woman was taken alive to the morgue. Her family members and health professionals involved in patient care should be heard in the coming days.

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