Published: March 12, 2021 By

Two CU Boulder anthropology alums facilitate rapid COVID relief in Brazil by coordinating an effort to deliver breathing devices

In January, The Washington Post reported a scene of growing desperation in Manaus, capital of  the remote Brazilian state of Amazonas, where hospitals were being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients and a critical shortage of oxygen supplies for patients. 

“There is a collapse in the health care system in Manaus. The line for hospital beds is growing by a lot,” Brazilian Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello said.


Cydney Justman

“We are in a deplorable situation,” one woman said in a video posted to Instagram. “Whoever has oxygen availability, bring it here to the polyclinic. Many people are dying.”

Just weeks later, in a remarkable feat of connection and collaboration, two University of Colorado Boulder anthropology graduates helped coordinate an effort to deliver 400 concentrators—breathing devices that are simpler, less invasive than ventilators and can be used by more than one person—to Manaus in a matter of days.

Following publication of a second Washington Post story about the global shortage of oxygen on Jan. 11, Colleen Scanlan Lyons (PhDAnth’10), research professor in the environmental studies program and project director for the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force—which combats deforestation in the Amazon region—began contacting friends, family and colleagues about the shortage. 

The power of human connection, trust, and an urgent and common goal fueled this important COVID relief effort."

Lyons’ parents, a doctor and nurse, introduced her to Wayne Citrone, founder and executive director of Health Bridges International, which works on health issues in Peru. Citrone told her that he had been working with a Catholic priest in Peru to use oxygen concentrators near Arequipa, Peru, which had great success and even spurred local manufacturers to start making the devices on their own. Perhaps, he suggested, the oxygen concentrator model could work in Amazonas, too.

He also connected Lyons to Direct Relief, a California-based nonprofit that works in the United States and around the world to provide medical resources to care for the world's most vulnerable people. It turned out that a fellow CU Boulder graduate, Cydney Justman (Anth’10), was a senior emergency response manager for the organization.

Direct Relief typically does just what its name implies: the organization provides direct relief for dire health issues. But Justman, who lived in South America for many years, understood that the Brazilian bureaucracy could be a tough tangle to work out for international aid organizations, and suggested working with a regional partner instead.

“Since we were limited in what we could send, I knew we needed to look at other avenues and source the (oxygen concentrators) from within Brazil,” Justman says. “We just pivoted instead of sending from our own inventory.”

Working through the state government of Amazonas, which is the chair of the GCFTF, Justman contacted the Brazil-based Foundation for Amazon Sustainability, which identified vendors and ensured they could deliver the devices quickly. She proposed that Direct Relief make a $530,000 grant—the largest in the organization’s history in Latin America—and received approval in a mere two days. 

one of the O2 concentrators being readied for transport to a community in Amazonas, Brazil.

One of the O2 concentrators being readied for transport to a community in Amazonas, Brazil.

Direct Relief arranged to transfer the funds to the foundation, which fronted the money to facilitate immediate delivery, and on Feb. 13—just over two weeks since the effort began—some 400 oxygen concentrators began arriving in Manaus for distribution to remote areas.

“The power of human connection, trust, and an urgent and common goal fueled this important COVID relief effort,” Lyons says. 

Justman says living 12 years in Latin America helped her better understand how to quickly build the partnerships that facilitated the project. She also tracks storms in Central and South America, to help Direct Relief anticipate the need for aid.

She arrived at CU Boulder in 2004 seeking a life different from what she’d known growing up in California: “I just wanted to get out. I was young; I truly had no idea how cool California is,” she says, but she’s now a dedicated surfer and can’t imagine living away from the ocean. 

She didn’t know what she wanted to study until Anthropology Professor Dennis Van Gerven took her into a basement crypt at Hale Hall and showed her hundreds of Nubian mummies he and his team of students had exhumed in 1978-79

“I couldn’t get over that. I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever see. I wanted a piece of that for myself and my career,” Justman says. 

As an undergraduate, she studied abroad in Africa and Latin America and received an Undergraduate Research Opportunities grant to study in Peru. After graduation, she earned a master’s degree in global health from Duke University. 

All of that experience, combined with her childhood fascination with storms and extreme events, has put her in what she calls a “remarkable position” at Direct Relief: “I’m digitally ‘chasing storms’ and the impact they will have on humans.”