Brazil’s COVID-19 death toll passed 200,000 on Thursday amid a surging second wave, dousing optimism that 2021 will bring respite anytime soon for a country whose government’s erratic handling of the pandemic has drawn scathing criticism.
The new coronavirus has now killed 200,498 people in Brazil, according to health ministry figures – the second-highest toll worldwide, after the United States, where the number stands at nearly 363,000.
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Brazil reported a record number of new cases – 87,843 – and the second-highest number of daily deaths – 1,524 – since the pandemic began.
Many expected the pandemic to ease in 2021, but in Brazil, this year has started with a firestorm of controversy over holes in the government’s vaccination plan and far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s continued denial of COVID-19.
The situation stands to get a lot worse in Brazil before it gets better, warns Paulo Lotufo, an epidemiologist at the University of Sao Paulo.
“I don’t even know how we’re going to get through January,” he told AFP news agency.
“A lot of health workers are exhausted. People have had to deal with a huge amount of suffering.”
Bolsonaro, who has defied expert advice on managing the pandemic at every turn – railing against lockdowns, face masks and other “hysteria” – has stuck to the same script as the world starts vaccination campaigns.
Critics accuse him of heightening anti-vaccine scepticism by saying he does not plan to be vaccinated and joking the jab could “turn you into an alligator”.
Brazil has yet to set a start date for its vaccination drive.
Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello said on Thursday it would begin “by January 20, in the best-case-scenario … and at the latest by early March”.
The government has struggled to obtain enough vaccine doses for Brazil’s 212 million people. Authorities fell flat last week when they tried to buy enough syringes, securing less than 3 percent of the 300 million it tendered.
“The government’s list of mistakes in responding to the pandemic is unparalleled worldwide,” said political analyst Sylvio Costa, founder of the news site Congresso em Foco.
“Bolsonaro is the most obstinate and obsessed of the COVID denialists, and it’s creating a catastrophe.”
The president, who comes up for re-election next year, meanwhile, faces a conundrum: on January 1, the government stopped making monthly COVID relief payments to 68 million low-income workers.
The programme had helped him weather the pandemic with his popularity intact, but fuelled a skyrocketing deficit.
Bolsonaro said on Tuesday that “Brazil is broke”, blaming the “press-fuelled virus”.
Analysts forecast Latin America’s biggest economy will report a contraction of 4.36 percent for 2020 and an underwhelming rebound of 3.4 percent this year.
Horror show sequel?
After finally bringing down the curves of infections and deaths from September to November, Brazil is now seeing uncomfortable reminders of the pandemic’s worst days.
Hospitals in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have recently reported intensive care units more than 90 percent full.
In the Amazon rainforest city of Manaus, where there were haunting scenes last April of mass graves and corpses piled in refrigerator trucks, the health system is saturated again.
With hospitalisations in Manaus recently hitting the highest level of the pandemic, the city has again deployed refrigerator trucks to store cadavers. A court on Saturday forced the state government to shut non-essential businesses for 15 days.
Unlike in the first wave, suburban and rural areas are now struggling with high caseloads, too.
Across Brazil, the number of COVID-19 deaths rose 65 percent from November to December.
Experts fear another surge in January, after many Brazilians ignored social distancing guidelines with large Christmas and New Year’s celebrations.
The sprawling country last week confirmed its first two cases of the new, more contagious strain of the virus that emerged in the United Kingdom.
The plight of Brazil and other countries struggling to control the virus matters beyond their borders, said the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
“The fact is that no one is safe until we are all safe,” it said.
“The nature of this virus means that the world can only be as strong as the weakest health system.”