A Brazilian woman caught coronavirus on vacation. Her maid is now dead
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[March 24, 2020]
By Gram Slattery and Rodrigo Viga Gaier
MIGUEL PEREIRA, Brazil (Reuters) - Last
Monday, housekeeper Cleonice Gonçalves suddenly fell ill while working
at an apartment in Leblon, an exclusive neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro
tucked between the mountains and the city's famous beachfront.
Her family called a taxi for the 63-year-old when they learned of her
condition. It took Gonçalves two hours of traveling through twisting
switchbacks to reach her home in the small town of Miguel Pereira, deep
in the mountains. At around 6 p.m., she checked into the town's local
hospital, complaining of difficulty urinating.
By the following afternoon, she was dead. Her death was the first
fatality attributed to coronavirus in greater Rio de Janeiro, and the
fifth in Brazil.
The source of the infection was her employer in Leblon, a woman who had
recently returned from holiday in Italy, according to four state and
local officials who recounted Gonçalves' case to Reuters. They said the
boss had been feeling ill and sought testing for coronavirus, but
alleged she did not inform Gonçalves, who had worked for the family for
"When (Gonçalves' employer) came back, she already suspected" she had
COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by coronavirus, said Camila
Ramos de Miranda, the municipal health secretary in Miguel Pereira.
Ramos would not disclose the name of the employer, and Reuters was not
able independently to verify her identity. The news agency was not able
to confirm the state and local officials' account of how Gonçalves
became infected, including the allegation that the employer didn't share
her suspicions about her possible infection.
The episode has provoked panic among the 25,000 residents of Miguel
Pereira, where officials say there are now 19 suspected cases of
It has also sparked a public conversation about class and privilege.
People affluent enough to travel abroad helped coronavirus get a
foothold in Brazil, according to health officials, who worry it will now
swamp low-income communities in Latin America's largest nation.
Brazilian social media lit up following news reports of Gonçalves'
In a March 19 column in the nation's largest newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo,
Djamila Ribeiro, a well-known public intellectual, said the case
exemplifies the precarious state of Brazil's poor, many of whom don't
have the luxury of staying at home.
"We don't even need to say that the most vulnerable will be the most
affected," said Ribeiro, who teaches political philosophy at the
University of São Paulo. "It's a structural issue."
Brazil's Health Ministry last week said nearly 60% of suspected cases of
coronavirus it was tracking as of last Tuesday were people who had
recently traveled to places such as Italy, Spain and the United States,
where the pandemic is raging.
Some 22 Brazilian officials and business leaders who joined President
Jair Bolsonaro on a trip to Florida earlier this month have confirmed
testing positive for the virus. At least four of them accompanied
Bolsonaro to Mar-a-Lago, U.S. President Donald Trump's Palm Beach
resort, where the two leaders had dinner.
A major cluster has been traced to an opulent wedding at a beach resort
in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia. At least 10 attendees had
presented symptoms as of March 11, according to media reports. The virus
was introduced by a guest who had recently traveled to Aspen, Colorado,
the resort said in a statement. Preta Gil, a popular Rio singer and
actress who attended the event, disclosed on social media on March 14
that she had tested positive.
Coronavirus cases are expanding quickly in Brazil. As of Monday, the
country had recorded 1,891 confirmed cases, an eight-fold increase in a
week, with 34 deaths tied to the virus, according to the latest Health
More than 12% of those confirmed cases were in Rio de Janeiro, where
around one-fifth of the population lives in densely populated, unplanned
communities known as favelas.
[to top of second column]
A security officer is seen at the Municipal cemetery, where the
63-year-old maid Leonice Goncalves was buried after she was infected
with coronavirus by her boss, according to state and local
officials, in Miguel Pereira near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil March 20,
2020. REUTERS/Lucas Landau
Wilson Witzel, the governor of Rio de Janeiro state, warned on
Friday that the state's public health system was in danger of
"collapse" within 15 days, amid an influx of patients and strained
public finances. Rio's government is heavily dependent on taxes on
oil production, a source that is drying up quickly thanks to a
recent crash in crude prices.
Many low-income workers in Brazil, as in much of the rest of the
world, toil in the informal economy without benefits or paid sick
days. Mirian María de Lira, a domestic worker in Rio, is relatively
lucky. She said her regular clients are paying her to stay home
during the outbreak. But she said many friends and relatives are
still required to show up or risk losing their jobs, including her
husband, a doorman at an upscale apartment building.
"He keeps working because it's the only option," she said.
The town of Miguel Pereira is only 40 miles northwest of Leblon, but
the differences are stark. Leblon's beachfront and bars are
gathering spots for wealthy Rio youth; its real estate is some of
the most expensive in Latin America.
In contrast, the narrow street where Gonçalves lived is partially
dirt, lined with wildflowers and boxed in by mountainsides. Modest
homes are built from cinder block. Many in the area commute to Rio
daily, cobbling together buses and trains for a journey that takes
nearly three hours via public transport.
Gonçalves' family, now in quarantine, declined to talk with Reuters.
Her death happened quickly, according to Ramos, the municipal health
secretary; André Português, the town's mayor; and two other people
with knowledge of the case who declined to be identified.
When Gonçalves checked into the municipal hospital, which has no
intensive care unit, doctors determined she had a urinary tract
infection, high blood pressure and diabetes, which had not been
diagnosed previously. People with underlying conditions are most at
risk from COVID-19.
Between 9 a.m. and noon the following day, Gonçalves' condition
deteriorated rapidly. She was having trouble breathing. Ramos said
she received a call that morning from Gonçalves' employer; the
Leblon resident said she had tested positive for coronavirus.
Doctors intubated Gonçalves to help her struggling lungs, but she
died that afternoon. On Thursday, Rio state officials said lab
testing confirmed Gonçalves had died of the virus.
She was interred in the municipal cemetery about a block from her
house in a simple white structure, where bodies are stacked one on
top of the other. Local workers call the structure "the vertical."
Most graves are unmarked.
With coronavirus cases mounting, officials here say they are
imploring residents to stay inside to slow the spread.
Ramos, the health secretary, said the local hospital has been
training in coronavirus treatment protocols since December and has
for weeks been building an intensive care facility within the
hospital to handle an expected surge in cases.
Still, she said, the fear here is palpable.
"We're in panic," Ramos said, choking back tears.
(Reporting by Gram Slattery and Rodrigo Viga Gaier; Additional
reporting by Lucas Landau; Editing by Marla Dickerson)
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