Sao Paulo, Brazil – Brazil has become a byword for COVID-19 mismanagement, but one city is being championed as a model of how to tackle the coronavirus.
Araraquara, an industrial city of 240,000 people in Sao Paulo state, 270km (168 miles) from the administrative capital of the same name, implemented a 10-day lockdown in February, including closing supermarkets and public transport, aggressively tested citizens and detected the presence of the more infectious P1 variant early.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
The result: a dramatic drop in infections, hospitalisations and deaths.
“It’s undeniable that lockdown is a bitter measure and difficult to take, but it gives results,” Mayor Edinho Silva told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview.
COVID-19 deaths in the city fell to zero on both Saturday and Monday, while 30 and 26 new cases were registered on those days, respectively. The majority of the city’s hospital beds are occupied by citizens from other cities and states.
The mayor declared lockdown one day after the city registered its highest number of new cases at 248, and after coronavirus-related deaths in February had doubled from January. A month after the lockdown was implemented, there was a 39 percent drop in deaths and a 57.5 percent drop in cases.
But Silva has also received death threats online after instituting the measures, underscoring the highly politicised and volatile nature of Brazil’s COVID-19 crisis. “I’m not intimated,” he said.
“Brazil is living through a very difficult time, where hate, violence and people arming themselves is being encouraged.”
Bolsonaro rejects restrictions
Araraquara’s success comes amid soaring death tolls nationwide: more than 66,000 people died due to the coronavirus in March alone, and April is expected to be even worse.
To date, less than 10 percent of the country’s 211 million citizens have been vaccinated, and health experts are speaking out more about the need to implement lockdowns and restrictive measures.
“What Araraquara did was to follow the model that is now consensus in the whole world,” said Dr Jamal Suleiman, an infectologist at Sao Paulo’s Emilio Ribas hospital.
But Brazil’s far-right, pro-gun populist President Jair Bolsonaro continues to decry COVID-19 restrictions, maintaining that economic downturn is worse than the disease itself.
In Araraquara, as in many other Brazilian cities, groups of local business owners and supporters of the president have rallied against restriction measures, as well. The city’s Commercial and Industrial Association mounted billboards calling for the restrictions to be lifted.
“The objective is to show authorities in a more visual way the clamour of companies and self-employed professionals,” the association’s president Jose Janone Jr told local media.
Silva is a member of Brazil’s left-wing Workers’ Party, long hated by Bolsonaro and his supporters. Last week, the mayor filed a police complaint after receiving death threats online, and police have opened an inquiry into one Facebook post.
“Anyone knows where Mayor Edinho Silva lives?” read the post currently under investigation, with fire, knife, coffin and skull emojis. “I just want one round with him first. After I would cut him from bottom to top,” the user continued.
Local journalists found the author of the post, a musical instrument repair shop owner, who said he had written it out of “hot-headedness”.
“I’m a family man, do you think I’m going to spend my life in jail? This was a desperate moment. We have a business, we need to work. I am not the only desperate father wanting to work and put food on the table,” he told reporters from the G1 news portal.
Silva said the city’s health secretary had also received threats.
“There is a group of business owners here that insist that these [restrictive] measures are wrong – not only because of the economic losses but because many are in fact driven by Bolsonaro’s views,” said Milton Lahuerta, a political scientist at the Araraquara campus of Sao Paulo State University.
On Monday, as Araraquara registered zero COVID-19 deaths, Bolsonaro once again criticised lockdown measures.
“It is the same speech that I’ve been giving since March last year. We still have two very serious problems ahead, the virus and unemployment,” he said.
But for Silva, the president presents a false dichotomy.
“The Brazilian economy is crashing because of the instability created by the pandemic,” he said. “If we want the economy to return to growth there has to be control of the pandemic.”
Brazil has registered the second most coronavirus deaths in the world after the United States, with more than 332,000 fatalities, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
Research recently published by the University of Washington estimates that 100,000 Brazilians will die from COVID-19 in April and that Brazil’s total death toll could reach nearly 563,000 by July.
“If something isn’t done to avoid this catastrophe we will certainly hit this prediction,” said Suleiman, the infectologist.