‘Horrific milestone’: Brazil surpasses 600,000 COVID deaths

President Bolsonaro continues to face widespread criticism and anger over his government’s handling of the pandemic.

A patient with suspected COVID-19 infection is taken into an ambulance by members of the Emergency Mobile Care Service team, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Duque de Caxias near Rio de Janeiro [File: Pilar Olivares/Reuters]

Brazil has become only the second country in the world to record more than 600,000 coronavirus deaths, as far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic continues to face sharp criticism and scrutiny.

Bolsonaro, a coronavirus sceptic, has drawn the ire of health experts and many Brazilians for downplaying the severity of the virus, rejecting lockdowns and other public health measures, and failing to rapidly secure COVID-19 vaccines.

He has faced mass protests during the past several months, with demonstrators slamming his government’s COVID-19 policies and calling for his impeachment, and a Brazilian Senate committee in April launched an investigation into his pandemic policies.

But despite Friday’s sombre milestone, there were signs that infections in Brazil were finally ebbing, as the country ramped up vaccinations after a slow start.

More than 70 percent of Brazilians have received a first dose, compared with 65 percent in the United States, which passed the 600,000-deaths mark in June.

“The rejection rate of vaccines is really low, it makes other countries jealous,” said Alexandre Naime Barbosa, head of epidemiology at Sao Paulo State University. “That’s really important for Brazil to contain the pandemic.”

Brazil also appeared to have been spared the worst of the Delta variant so far, with registered deaths and cases falling despite the arrival of the more contagious strain.

Deaths were down 80 percent from their peak of more than 3,000 per day in April, and Brazil no longer has one of the world’s highest daily death tolls.

Still, Al Jazeera’s Monica Yanakiew said many Brazilians are angry about how the government has handled the pandemic.

“This delay in the vaccines has affected also the economy. Brazil is now having a very high inflation rate … and so the economic recovery will not be what was expected, and people are feeling hopeless,” Yanakiew reported.

A protester holds a sign reading, ‘Get out now Bolsonaro’ during a rally in Rio de Janeiro last month against the president’s handling of the pandemic [Silvia Izquierdo/AP Photo]

On Friday, Brazilian non-profit Rio de Paz hung 600 white scarves on Rio de Janeiro’s famous Copacabana beach in honour of all those who died.

“The president discouraged sanitary standards, challenged mask use, condemned social distancing, was against mass vaccination – because of that we have these bitter numbers,” said the group’s president, Antonio Costa.

“These are thousands of grieving families,” he said, referring to the scarves dotting the beach. “One day, we’ll know how many of those have died, lost their lives, because they heard the denying speech of some of our main public authorities.”

At a support group in Rio for family members of the virus’ victims, Bruna Chaves mourned the loss of her mother and stepfather.

“It’s not just 600,000 people who are gone; it’s a lot of people who die with them, emotionally,” Chaves told The Associated Press. “It’s absurd that people treat it like it’s a small number. It’s a big number.”

Some analysts also remain worried about Delta’s potential to spread in Brazil.

Miguel Lago, executive director of the country’s Institute for Health Policy Studies, which advises public health officials, said he believed authorities are taking considerable risk by reopening too much and announcing celebrations.

“The pandemic has waned, but 500 deaths per day is far from good. And we don’t even have half the population fully vaccinated,” Lago said. “We just don’t know enough and we have this horrific milestone to contemplate now.”

A member of the Rio de Paz NGO places white handkerchiefs that symbolise a farewell, to pay tribute to Brazil’s 600,000 coronavirus disease (COVID-19) deaths [Pilar Olivares/Reuters] 
Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies