Brazil Blows Past 300,000 Covid Deaths With No Respite in Sight

Brazil became just the second country to cross the mark of 300,000 deaths from the coronavirus pandemic at a time when the disease is raging like wildfire across the vast Latin American country and overrunning hospitals.

It took just two-and-a-half months for Brazil to go from 200,000 to 300,000 deaths compared with five months between 100,000 and 200,000 fatalities, in a sign of the speed at which Covid-19 and its P.1 variant is spreading.

The Health Ministry reported 2,009 additional deaths on Wednesday, taking the toll to 300,685. New confirmed cases jumped 89,992 in the past 24 hours, to 12,220,011. Both overall totals are the highest globally after the U.S.

“Brazil’s current scenario is really critical,” said Amaury Fabbro, a doctor and professor at the University of Sao Paulo. “It’s not just a question of overall deaths, but of overcrowded hospitals and supply problems. There are shortages of oxygen and medical professionals.”

But while the U.S. has already vaccinated 25% of its population with at least one dose, Brazil’s struggle to secure supplies and coordinate a nationwide campaign among the federal government and its 27 states, means just 6% have received a shot.

A patchwork response to the pandemic has complicated any consistent preventative health measures and enforcement has been near impossible. President Jair Bolsonaro has only recently begun to wear a mask more regularly as he faces pressure from the business community, supreme court and congress to come up with a solution to the health crisis that is hitting the economy once again.

On Tuesday, Bolsonaro made a nationwide address saying life will be back to normal “very soon” and highlighted the importance of vaccines, calling 2021 “a vaccination year for Brazilians.” The televised address was met with louder than usual pot-banging protests in several cities across the country. Shouting from their windows, some protesters called him murderer.

Hours later, Bolsonaro announced the creation of a Covid committee, which will work with governors to centralize measures against the pandemic. The announcement followed a meeting between the president and chiefs of the Supreme Court, Lower House, Senate and some governors.

Brazil Blows Past 300,000 Covid Deaths With No Respite in Sight

It was a stark change of tone for a President who has downplayed the severity of the pandemic, stressed the need to keep the economy open, and shunned vaccinations. Last week, Bolsonaro filed a request with the Supreme Court to overturn lockdowns in several states and on Sunday, he celebrated his 66th birthday with hundreds of supporters in the capital Brasilia, hugging children and passing out birthday cake.

Brazil is living its most dramatic moment of the pandemic that’s entering its 13th month in the country with near daily records of deaths or cases and the worst crisis ever across its vast health system. ICU capacity rates were at or above 80% in 25 states, as of the last Fiocruz report on March 23, while 18 states had levels higher than 90%.

The report also highlighted a “disproportional increase in mortality in the country,” which went to 3.1% from 2% at the end of last year. The jump signals patients could be dying due to a lack of assistance or because of a failures in health-care, Fiocruz said.

Sao Paulo state, the country’s wealthiest and most populated, reported oxygen shortages for the first time recently. Another 81 cities are facing the risk of running out of oxygen, according to a survey by the National Front of Mayors published this week. Brasilia’s hospitals are at full capacity with some local media reports talking about bodies covered in corridors for those who died waiting for a bed.

At the same time, misinformation about the pandemic has also traveled fast on social media, including recommendations to take unproven medications, false news about vaccines and insults against governors imposing restrictions.

The crisis has prompted neighbors to close borders, impose travel bans and require forced quarantines while global health experts warn of the threat Brazil presents to a world that is hoping to get back to normal through the widespread deployment of vaccines.

Brazil Blows Past 300,000 Covid Deaths With No Respite in Sight

World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has repeatedly called on Brazil to take more serious measures. On Monday, WHO Executive Director Michael Ryan said greater coordination with state governments is required urgently. But Bolsonaro’s fourth health minister since the start of the pandemic was just sworn into the new job this week.

Only in the past several weeks have large states like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro decided to close restaurants and bars again, try to keep people off the beaches and keep kids at home. But the effects of a relatively open New Year celebration with family gatherings and clandestine parties around Carnival are being felt as the more contagious variant becomes predominant.

Brazil’s top banking and hedge fund executives, former central bank governors and key businessmen urged political leaders to do more to fight the pandemic. Figures including billionaires and bankers called the country “the global epicenter of Covid-19” in an open letter published on March 21. The outlook, the group said, is becoming more alarming as health-care systems collapse amid a “desolate” economic and social situation.

While Brazil was commended for its large stimulus package in 2020 to help soften the economic blow of the pandemic, it did little to prepare for a second wave or control the spread of the virus. Now, it’s having to cut more checks for informal workers as growth slows, inflation rises and investors warn of a potential fiscal crisis on the horizon.

The central bank raised its key rate by 75 basis points to 2.75% earlier this month. A move that was much earlier and much bolder than expected just a few months ago.

“Sometimes it seems that there’s a balance that can be struck between health and taking care of the economy, but it doesn’t exist,” Fabbro said. “The economy depends on us controlling this pandemic.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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