Deaths surge as political infighting undermines effective pandemic response and vaccination roll-out falters.
Brazil’s Sao Paulo state has announced new “code red” COVID-19 restrictions, as the country registered a record number of coronavirus-related deaths for the second straight day.
The country’s health ministry said on Wednesday that 1,910 additional deaths and 71,704 new cases of COVID-19 had been reported in the past 24 hours.
It was the second consecutive day that Brazil registered a record high number of deaths.
“For the first time since the pandemic began, we are seeing a deterioration across the entire country,” public health institute Fiocruz said before the latest figures were published.
“The situation is alarming.”
Brazil has recorded more than 257,000 coronavirus-related deaths – the second-highest in the world after the United States – as well as more than 10.6 million COVID-19 cases, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has faced widespread criticism and protests against his handling of the pandemic, as the far-right leader has downplayed the threat of the virus and eschewed public health measures.
The government has also struggled to secure, distribute and administer COVID-19 vaccines.
On Wednesday, Sao Paulo State Governor Joao Doria announced that a two-week, partial lockdown would come into effect on Saturday in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.
Bars and restaurants will operate only via delivery and malls and non-essential business will be shut, the governor told reporters during a news conference, but schools, churches, grocery stores and health services would remain open.
Doria said Sao Paulo state, which is home to 46.3 million people, has been receiving a new intensive care patient every two minutes and is “on the brink of a health system collapse”.
“This is your fault. It’s because of your denialism,” he said, addressing Bolsonaro.
“More than 1,000 people are dying every day in Brazil. It’s like five plane crashes a day … Many of the Brazilians who have been buried died because you didn’t do what you were supposed to: lead.”
Bolsonaro attacked the lockdowns on Wednesday.
“You cannot panic, like resorting once again to this stay-at-home policy. People are going to die of hunger and depression,” he told a group of supporters.
Fear of new variants
Julio Ponce, an epidemiologist in Sao Paulo, told Al Jazeera that Bolsonaro “has been undermining all the efforts to control the pandemic”.
“We need to have lockdown measures, we need to wear masks, and we need to keep social distancing until we are able to vaccinate enough people so that they are protected against the virus,” he said.
Concerns have mounted about the surging pandemic in Brazil, where a more easily transmissible variant of the novel coronavirus was first discovered in Amazonas state late last year.
The health system in the Amazonas state capital, Manaus, was overwhelmed earlier this year amid a surge in COVID-19 infections and widespread lack of medical supplies, including oxygen.
Experts have warned that if Brazil is unable to control the spread of the COVID-19, it could become the epicentre of the mutation of the virus, which could potentially be more infectious and lethal.
Meanwhile, Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello said he was close to an agreement with Pfizer Inc to purchase COVID-19 vaccine doses, effectively overcoming a dispute over liability clauses.
The government said it intended to buy 100 million doses from Pfizer and 38 million from Janssen, the pharmaceutical subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.
“We’ve reached a grave moment of the pandemic. The coronavirus variants are hitting us aggressively,” Pazuello said in a video posted on social media, adding he expected Brazil to receive the vaccines by May.