Rio de Janeiro: She still gets surprised when people want to hug her at the supermarket, but her studious media appearances analysing the pandemic have suddenly made Dr. Margareth Dalcolmo famous in coronavirus-ravaged Brazil.
Dalcolmo, a 65-year-old pulmonologist, was an unknown researcher at public health institute Fiocruz when COVID-19 arrived in Brazil in February 2020.
But the soft-spoken expert has since made hundreds of media appearances on the health crisis, emerging as a comforting, almost motherly source of information in a country where disinformation and science-bashing are spreading as fast as the virus.
It all started in March last year, when Dalcolmo made a short video summarising a crisis-response meeting she had just attended in the capital, Brasilia.
“I knew nothing about social media at that point. But it got 1.5 million views,” she said.
She has since become omnipresent on Brazilian TV and other media, one of the most listened-to voices on the pandemic in a country where more than 270,000 people have died of COVID-19 - the world’s second-highest death toll, after the United States.
Radiating calm authority with her red horn-rimmed glasses, she preaches the gospel of face masks, social distancing and vaccines, while denouncing mismanagement and corruption by health officials.
She has also pulled no punches in criticising “absurd, inept” views, such as arguments against vaccines or in favour of the medication hydroxychloroquine.
That has placed her squarely opposite a powerful figure who has repeatedly made both: far-right President Jair Bolsonaro.
“The forces of obscurantism have done tremendous harm to the Brazilian people,” Dalcolmo told AFP.
“But that just makes me feel even more driven to repeat the same information 1,000 times. And I’ll do it until I collapse.”
Dalcolmo has made 440 media appearances in all, giving her the name recognition typically reserved for, say, a superstar footballer.
“People are talking more about Margareth Dalcolmo than Neymar,” columnist Zuenir Ventura wrote in newspaper Globo last month.
‘Another hard year’
For those who think their lives have been upended by the pandemic, try Dalcolmo’s routine.
She starts her day at 7.00 am with video appointments with patients, and typically finishes at 9.00 pm.
“I’m also at Fiocruz, visiting hospitals, seeing patients at my clinic,” she said.
“I work at home. I have a lot of journal articles to read,” said Dalcolmo, who is married to 92-year-old public intellectual Candido Mendes de Almeida, a famous Brazilian in his own right.
A life-long bookworm, Dalcolmo still tries to reserve time for pleasure reading. Fluent in French, she loves the work of Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Yourcenar, the first woman elected to the Academie Francaise.
In fact, she says she became a pulmonologist because of a novel: “The Magic Mountain,” by German writer Thomas Mann, which takes place at a sanatorium.
Dalcolmo says she is proud to be the first person in Brazil to receive the vaccine developed by Oxford University, which Fiocruz is helping produce.
It did not arrive in time to spare her a bout of her own with COVID-19 last May.
The disease left her fingers slightly numb, but above all the memory of “anguished nights that lasted too long,” she said.
Now, it is her sister’s turn: the beloved sibling who Dalcolmo calls her “rock” is currently in an intensive care unit in their southeastern home state, Espirito Santo.
The worst moments of the pandemic, she said, “are when a patient is in intensive care, all alone, still conscious, and asks us to convey their final wishes to their family before being intubated.”
The pressure made her crack - once - in a video that went viral in January.
In tears, she lashed out at the “absolute incompetence” that led to vaccine shortages that have slowed the immunisation of Brazil’s 212 million people.
But there are moments of grace, she said.
“People recognize me at the supermarket as ‘the doctor from TV.’ They tell me, ‘We want to hug you, you’re in our home almost every night! We trust you,’” she said.
But with the number of cases and deaths currently surging in Brazil, she has a warning for her audience: 2021 “is going to be another very hard year.”