There is barely a person in Brazil today who hasn’t lost a loved one to Covid-19, say local scientists, as the country reached the grim milestone of half a million deaths.
The South American nation, which holds half the continent’s population, is being decimated by the virus. On June 18 alone Brazil accounted for nearly one-third of all Covid-19 deaths worldwide, according to Our World in Data – a figure that experts warn is quickly rising as the virus spreads unchecked throughout the country.
The 500,000 death toll is twice as high as it was six months ago, a sign that the mortality rate is accelerating, say experts.
“In June of last year, we reached 50,000 deaths for Covid-19. In just one year we have multiplied this number 10 times. It’s very scary,” says Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, who in January predicted that the country would reach 500,000 deaths in July. “At the time, people thought that the number was exaggerated,” he recalls.
The country has suffered from a slow vaccine rollout and staunch resistance to containment measures by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, who has downplayed the gravity of the virus.
With no lockdown and just 11.4% of the population fully vaccinated, the country is considered a “barn of new variants” and is increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. To date, more than 100 countries are restricting the entry of Brazilians, according to the foreign relations ministry.
Pressure on the federal government is mounting: Anti-Bolsonaro rallies were held on Saturday across the country – in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Brasilia, Salvador and Recife – and even those who were quarantining went out on the streets.
Software developer Mariana Oliveira is one of them. She says she’s decided to protest and take the risk of being infected because “the government is a worse threat than the virus.”
Bolsonaro didn’t comment on the 500,000 deaths milestone when he posted a video to his social media to encourage police forces.
But Fabio Faria, Brazil’s minister of communications, used the occasion to attack government opponents.
“Soon you will see politicians, artists, and journalists ‘grieving’ the number of 500,000 dead,” he said on his social media. “You will never see them celebrate the 86 million doses applied or the 18 million cured (from Covid-19) because the tone is always that of ‘the worse the better.’ Unfortunately, they cheer for the virus.”
For Pedro Hallall, an epidemiologist and professor at Pelotas Federal University (UFPel), the high death toll shows the power of the federal government’s resistance to more local restrictive measures. “There is no way to do a lockdown without the federal government, due to its size and importance,” Hallal says.
Bolsonaro has repeatedly downplayed the gravity of the pandemic, calling Covid-19 a “little flu.” In addition, since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the global pandemic, he has participated in at least 84 mass gatherings, according to a survey by the Brazilian newspaper O Globo.
State and local efforts to establish basic protocols for addressing infectious diseases, including testing, tracking, and isolating the infected, have also been weak, according to Hallal.
A study published in Lancet Journal by Hallal and his team at the beginning of the year estimated that three of every four deaths could have been avoided if Brazil followed basic pandemic protocols. Four of every five deaths could have been prevented if the government had fought the disease as well as the average country, Hallal’s team estimated.
“We see a slowdown in the pandemic in the world and an acceleration in Brazil. What’s behind this? It is an unnecessary decimation of the population. All of us Brazilians have lost people close to us, it’s very difficult to find a Brazilian who hasn’t lost someone close. We [scientists] warn but nothing happens in practice,” Hallal says.
Vaccine emails ignored
A Parliamentary Inquiry (CPI) this spring into the handling of the pandemic by various levels of government, led by Brazil’s senate, is investigating whether the federal government intentionally delayed the vaccine rollout in line with its herd immunity strategy.
Bolsonaro and his supporters say the senate’s investigation was aimed at weakening the federal government.
The CPI found that the Brazilian government ignored 81 emails from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, which offered its first vaccine deal last August, at half the price offered to the United States.
One of the CPI’s tasks is to investigate the adoption and promotion of drugs of unproven efficacy against Covid-19, such as hydroxychloroquine, by the federal government, to the detriment of more proven effective measures, such as the vaccine, the use of masks and social distancing.
Adding to the chaos of its health emergency, Brazil offered to host the Copa America, South America’s premier football competition, after Argentina and Colombia refused to host the event.
The tournament was originally to be hosted jointly by Argentina and Colombia, but the organizers decided to pull it first from Colombia, due to the country’s widespread social unrest, and then also from Argentina, due to the pandemic’s resurgence.
Bolsonaro boasted that the country would see the tournament through, despite widespread opposition and efforts by national team players to boycott the event.
As of June 18, 63 Covid-19 cases related to the tournament have been confirmed by Conmebol, the South American Football Confederation, 14 of them from the Venezuelan delegation alone.
“As we didn’t lock down and didn’t close the airspace, Brazil receives variants from all over the world. The new one is the C37 (Andean variant) at a time when Brazil receives several delegations from this region to play. The Copa America shows how federal authorities have no respect for life,” Nicolelis, the Brazilian neuroscientist, says.
The third wave
Nicolelis says he cannot predict what the next phase of the crisis in Brazil will look like. “Each wave has a peculiarity. The third wave, at least in Sao Paulo, behaves differently from the previous ones. It is coming from the countryside to the capital. The health system in the interior of the state has collapsed and now the capital has reached 80% of ICU beds,” he says.
Hallal says that without restrictive measures and lockdowns, Brazil’s death toll will continue to spiral until the vaccine hits at least 40% of the population. The government of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state, announced on Wednesday that it will expand the reopening of schools. “I think we’re going to stay like this for another four months, unfortunately. Only the vaccine effect will solve the pandemic in Brazil,” says Hallal.
At this stage, the long-term impacts for the millions infected are also impossible to predict, but a new study offers a grim picture of the future: 23% of people who had Covid-19 in the US developed one type of chronic cardiac, respiratory, neurological or psychiatric diseases.
“When we look at the number of “recovered” there are millions of people who in the future will be demanding all sorts of needs for services from Brazilian public health system (SUS) for chronic diseases. In the long run, this demand will be explosive. All this amid years of public health cuts. Without the SUS, the catastrophe in Brazil would be even worse,” says Nicolelis.