'Symbol of New Republic' : Baby's Death Teaches Sad Economics Lesson

Times Staff Writer

The first baby born in Brazil this year-- hailed by the press as a "symbol of the birth of a new republic," unofficially adopted by Brazil's President-elect Tancredo Neves and named in his honor--died the other day.

The circumstances of the death of Tancredinho, as the child was called, illustrated the kinds of human problems that Brazil faces as it returns to democracy today. The child died of pneumonia and dehydration just two months and five days after his birth.

Many of the children born in the slums and rural backlands of Brazil live only a short time. In some impoverished areas--in the northeastern states of Ceara and Piaui, for example--infant mortality in the first year exceeds 120 per 1,000 births. Nutritional deficiency, leading to gastrointestinal and pulmonary disease, is the main cause of death.

Symbolic Gesture

Tancredinho's chances for survival seemed better than average. Born in a hospital here early on New Year's Day, Tancredo Adriano Lima dos Santos was singled out by the president-elect in a symbolic, godfather-style gesture that is traditional in Brazil among politicians from rural areas such as Neves.

It was when Neves' wife, Risoleta, was pictured cradling the baby in her arms that Tancredinho was described by the Brazilian media as a "symbol of the birth of the new republic."

The 75-year-old Neves, who was democratically chosen by an electoral college, has said that his first priority after his inauguration will be an emergency program to provide jobs and food for the lowest strata of Brazilian society, where even those who can find jobs are paid a minimum wage of less than $40 a month.

Neves has said that his No. 2 priority will be to reduce inflation, which raised prices 225% during the last 12 months. The poorest have been hardest hit because food and rent have led the price increases.

Advantages Weren't Enough

But Tancredinho did not live to see the "new republic" despite the unusual advantages proffered by his benefactor.

The baby's father, Francisco Ribeiro dos Santos, 31, is a manual laborer for the city, which pays the minimum wage. Tancredinho's mother, Terezinha Pereira de Lima, 26, has two other children. The parents came here as migrants from the northeastern state of Paraiba and live in a wooden shack on a hillside behind the luxurious waterfront apartment houses of Copacabana Beach.

The mother did not have enough milk to nurse the new baby, but Neves' office here saw to it that she was provided with powdered milk, prepared baby food and clothing for the infant.

Three weeks ago, rainstorms lashed this coastal city--producing floods, mud slides that killed 20 people in the slums, and misery in the shantytowns where 800,000 people live.

Tancredinho came down with a cold. He was treated by his mother with some medicine provided by a local pharmacist but was not examined by a doctor, according to Carmen Burle, executive secretary at Neves' office here.

Too Expensive to Eat

The mother then decided to take her two older children back to her home state of Paraiba and leave them with her parents. The cost of living in Rio was too high to keep the family fed, she said.

Rather than take the sick baby on the 1,200-mile bus trip to Paraiba, she asked that Tancredinho be placed in a nursery run by a foundation for child education.

"With the assistance of the president-elect, he was admitted like an honored guest," Burle said. "He had a case of the sniffles, but the mother didn't tell us that he had been sick for a week."

By the second day, Tancredinho was being given an oral serum for dehydration, then antibiotics for pneumonia. A week ago, he died.

Sebastian Nascimento, who runs the foundation, remarked, "I hope Tancredinho's death serves to light the way for President-elect Tancredo Neves and the new republic."

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