Great-grandmother's losses show virus' ravages in Brazil

Manaus (Brazil) (AFP) –


Maria Nunes Sinimbu thought of the coronavirus pandemic as a faraway crisis.

Then COVID-19 killed five of her family members as the disease ravaged her hometown, Manaus, the biggest city in the Brazilian Amazon.

A retired school teacher of 76, Sinimbu has 12 children, more than 60 grandchildren and is not even sure exactly how many great-grandchildren.

A devout Catholic, she has had her faith tested as she has suffered one crushing loss after another to the new coronavirus.

In less than a month, the disease has claimed three of her children, her sister-in-law and brother-in-law.

"I never thought something like this would happen to me and my family. Imagine losing three children," said Sinimbu, a silver-haired woman whose face barely shows her age -- minus the sad eyes, heavy with loss behind her glasses.

"When the first one died, God gave me the strength to go on. When the second one died, I thought, 'I can't anymore.' But I went to my room, and God gave me even more strength not to give up on life," she said.

A widow who survives on her pension, Sinimbu lives in a modest home in a poor neighborhood of red-brick, tin-roof houses on the outskirts of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state in northwestern Brazil.

Her horror story started on April 5, with the death of her son Raimundo, a 58-year-old school teacher like her.

One of three children who lived at home with Sinimbu, he died in the hospital after being admitted for a respiratory infection that turned out to be COVID-19.

Two days later, she lost her sister-in-law Etelvina, 77.

The next bad news arrived on April 13: her daughter Iolanda, a 48-year-old shopkeeper, had also died.

"She had decided to go on working and traveling normally," said Sinimbu.

"She didn't realize the power of this disease."

Eleven days later, her brother-in-law Luiz died at 80.

Then, on May 1, her son Raniere Thiago, 52, was admitted to hospital in serious condition and died soon after.

- 'Silent' killer -

Only Raimundo and Iolanda tested positive for the new coronavirus and are included in the official toll of 1,413 deaths in Amazonas.

But the family is certain all five relatives died of the virus.

Brazil, which is fast emerging as a flashpoint in the pandemic, has registered more than 16,000 deaths and 240,000 cases so far.

Experts say under-testing means the real figures are likely far higher.

Sinimbu has not been tested, but thinks she may have had the virus and recovered.

In her house, she keeps a small altar where she prays to Our Lady of Carmo, the patron saint of Parintins, the small town in the Amazon where she grew up.

The colorfully painted house is also dotted with bottles of hand sanitizer at every turn, and all the family members wear face masks.

"People should be more careful with this disease. It's silent," said Sinimbu.