By Emanuela Citterio
Sister Laura Cantoni recounts the drama of the fight against Covid-19 from the Diocesan Hospital of Parintins. It is a struggle with very few means and a great deal of dedication in the Amazon, which has been increasingly affected by the virus.
“The great concern these days is that the virus is spreading uncontrollably in the inland areas of the Amazon rainforest, specifically among the indigenous communities, where there are no means to combat it,” Sr. Laura Cantoni explains. Sr. Laura is part of the Missionaries of the Immaculate, the Sisters of the PIME Missionaries, and is the Administrative Manager of the Diocesan Hospital of Parintins in the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Since the end of March, she has been at the forefront of the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic in this city of 70,000 inhabitants in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest.
With over 500,000 confirmed Coronavirus cases, Brazil is the second most affected country in the world. After the capital Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas, has the most infections. The key difference being that there are very few hospitals in Amazonas, there is a distinct lack of intensive care and specialized doctors.
In Parintins, there are only two hospitals, the government hospital and the one founded by PIME and now owned by the diocese, the Father Ferruccio Colombo Hospital. “And to think that when I returned to Brazil in 2018, after a period of service in Italy, I should not have been here,” says the missionary. “My dream was to return to work in the forest with the indigenous communities. Bishop Giuliano Frigeni asked me to help make ends meet with the hospital instead, which was in danger of financial collapse. In these two years, we managed to reorganize it and put the administration back in place, then Covid-19 arrived.”
These days, in Parintins, the epidemic that started at the end of March is still in a growing phase. “Two-thirds of women in our maternity ward are positive for the virus. And one-third of the health care workers have fallen ill, 80 out of 250 doctors, nurses and administrative staff,” Sr. Laura reveals. Since the beginning of the epidemic, there has been a close collaboration between the diocesan hospital and the one run by the state. “In the beginning, we tried to keep the COVID cases separate from the other patients. The public hospital took care of the first, and we took care of all the other pathologies and maternity. Soon, however, the virus entered our wards as well. The positive aspect is that with rapid and serological tests and swabs, we have been able to identify the positives and isolate them from the others in the last few weeks. Another positive aspect is that new mothers and babies do not show serious symptoms.”
“These days, the head of the state hospital got sick, so our head doctor decided to replace him,” Sr. Laura continues. “We were left without a head physician, but we are aware that he made a courageous and indispensable choice to face the emergency in Parintins. We reorganized ourselves with a maternity director and another clinical director for all the activities of our hospital.”
“At the end of the day, I am in the middle of the storm and try to solve all the problems that overlap, the situations that change every day; when I come home, I die of tiredness,” she confides.
“I have little time to think, and my prayer is used to let a certain person or situation flow through my mind and heart and to put them before God. But there is a thought that touches me deeply, and it is that as soon as all this is over, we will not be able to pick up where we left off; we missionaries, too. We have suspended all pastoral activities in this period, but this does not mean that we cannot find countless ways to be close to people. There is a need to comfort, to help from the material point of view. We are already seeing the first signs of the economic crisis, but also from the emotional and spiritual point of view. In the hospital, we try to maintain unity and hope.”
“What is happening also shakes us concerning the idea that we have of God,” says Sr. Laura. “Here in Brazil, there are several Evangelical churches, and there are two interpretations that are the main ones. Some say that God sent COVID to convert us. Some say that if you pray and are with God, nothing will happen to you. I do not believe either of those two versions. For me, faith is the answer that we give in the face of this situation.”
To support the interventions of the missionaries in the suburbs of the world struggling with COVID-19, visit our Mission Project page and donate to our Coronavirus Emergency Relief Fund.