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Brazil struggles to keep pandemic under control

Thomas Milz
March 12, 2021

Infection rates and death tolls have been rising drastically. Soon, Brazil could have more deaths than the US. However, President Jair Bolsonaro still rejects tough restrictions.

Covid patients in Porto Alegre, Brazil
Brazil has logged more than 2,000 deaths from COVID-19 per dayImage: Diego Vara/REUTERS

Brazil is struggling to keep the coronavirus outbreak under control. On Thursday, 2,207 coronavirus-related deaths were recorded in just 24 hours — down from 2,286 the previous day. It is the first time Brazil's death toll has exceeded 2,000 cases within 24 hours.

Media coverage has focused on the growing sense of despair among Brazilians, who fear for their loved ones. Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian doctor and neuroscientist, calls the situation "extremely serious and tragic." This is "Brazil's worst moment in the pandemic."

The country's recent spike in deaths and new infections poses a huge challenge for the country. Indeed, some 80,000 new cases were recorded on Thursday. Nicolelis tells DW that the high rate of infections can most likely not be stopped.

Brazil: Experts fear new variants

The researcher's accurate predictions have earned him countrywide recognition. Several weeks ago, he projected Brazil could be facing some 3,000 daily coronavirus deaths in late March. Alas, he says his grim prediction could become reality even sooner. "We might be reaching that figure by next week — or even sooner."

3,000 daily deaths possible

Over a year ago, he says, researchers began warning the pandemic could get out of hand. Now, their gloomy predictions have come true. "The pandemic is completely out of control," says Nicolelis. "The situation has deteriorated because some regional health care systems are already collapsing." He says the death toll continues to climb as Brazil's hospitals and intensive care units lack capacities to treat COVID-19 patients.

Woman getting coronavirus shot
Brazil has failed to order enough vaccine shotsImage: Leco Viana/Zuma/picture alliance

Exact projections are difficult to make, he says, though fears "that by next week, we could be exceeding the daily death figures recorded in the US." It would mean up to 5,000 deaths each day.

Even expensive private clinics are operating at maximum capacity. Hospitals in Brazil's most populous state, Sao Paulo, have registered a 300% rise in intensive-care admissions in just one week. By next week, the regional health care sector could collapse.

Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello rejects such dark projections. "Nothing has and will collapse," Pazuello asserts. The general's reputation has, however, recently taken a hit.

An investigation has been launched to ascertain to what extent he is responsible for oxygen shortages in Manaus hospitals in mid-January this year. He is believed to have known about the shortages and failed to act, sending doses of Chloroquin — an antimalarial drug ineffective against COVID-19 — to the city instead of oxygen. Pazuello has recently been forced to concede that far fewer vaccine shots than previously estimated does will be available to the public, too.

Not enough doses

Brazil's government has largely focused on acquiring the AstraZeneca vaccine. Now, however, the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company faces distribution issues. For political reasons, President Bolsonaro attempted to sabotage an initiative by Sao Paulo state to instead import CoronaVac from China.

The Chinese-made vaccine is the only one available in large qualities in Brazil at this time. President Bolsonaro — who until recently vehemently opposed vaccinations — rejected an offer by BioNTech-Pfizer to acquire over 70 million vaccine doses.

Ex-President Lula attacks Bolsonaro

On Wednesday, ex-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva publicly lambasted Bolsonaro's politics, imploring ordinary Brazilians to "not follow any dumb orders by the president or the health care minister." Silva, a former union leader who remains an influential politician to this day, also told Brazilians to get vaccinated. He said Bolsonaro's refusal to set up a coronavirus task force was to blame for the country's 270,000 coronavirus-related deaths.

Jair Bolsonaro taking off face mask
Bolsonaro refused to wear a mask until recentlyImage: Eraldo Peres/AP Photo/picture alliance

Bolsonaro, who had until recently rejected face masks, has been seen publicly wearing them. Observers believe he caved in under Silva's public criticism. But sociologist Demetrio Magnoli thinks the Bolsonaro government changed course two weeks ago when it saw cases spike in a second wave.

Bolsonaro's approval ratings subsequently dipped. Pressure has been growing, too, since Brazilian governors and Congress hinted at an independent drive to purchasing vaccines. "Bolsonaro is not only concerned about his reelection next year, but also about his government's stability," says Magnoli. "The government is in trouble, and it's getting worse."

Experts recommend strict lockdown

Given Brazil's lack of vaccines, experts are now urging a draconian, countrywide lockdown. "There is no other way," says Nicolelis. He also says the country should seal its external border to contain the spread of the highly contagious P.1 Manaus variant. "Brazil is like an open-air laboratory where new variants can emerge," he warns. And given this danger, he says the international community ought to supply the country with vaccines.

Magnoli, however, says there is no political backing to introduce a European-style lockdown in Brazil. He says the country also lacks the necessary police officers to enforce such a lockdown, especially in Brazil's sprawling favelas, which are home to the poor. Residents in Rio de Janeiro‘s North Zone, for example, are barely ever seen wearing masks, despite a dramatic spike in infections.

President Bolsonaro serves as a bad role model. He claimed the economic repercussions of the lockdown are worse than the pandemic itself, with millions of jobs potentially lost. He says all these measures show how quickly the country could be transformed into a "dictatorship."