International 11/03/2021

New record number of coronavirus deaths in Brazil - country on the brink of health collapse

A year after the announcement of the pandemic, Bolsonaro continues to deny the seriousness of the virus

Javier de la Sotilla
3 min
Relatives during the burial of a coronavirus victim in Manaus, Brazil.

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) labelled the health crisis caused by the coronavirus as a pandemic. It had already been a month and a half since the organisation had declared a "public health emergency of international concern," but it was not until then that most governments began to take the restrictions more seriously. Covid was already in 114 countries, some 118,000 cases had been detected and nearly 4,300 people had lost their lives. But Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil's president, called the pandemic a "fantasy" and, disobeying his health ministry, opted to hold a mass rally, maskless and waving to his supporters.

A year later, Brazil is the country with the second highest number of cases in the world, after the United States, and has been recording new death records for two consecutive days. With 2,286 deaths in one day, it has already accumulated a total of 270,656 since the beginning of the health emergency. With hospitals overcrowded and a more infectious variant of the virus spreading, the number of infections continues to increase and this Wednesday 79,876 were reported in 24 hours, the third worst figures, taking the total to 11.2 million cases. The country has 212 million inhabitants and a president who continues to deny the seriousness of the virus.

"Stop complaining - how long will you keep crying about this?" said Bolsonaro a week ago. "How long will you stay home and shut everything down? No one can take it anymore. We are sorry for the deaths, but we need a solution." The president has repeatedly opposed quarantine measures, social distancing and the use of masks since the start of the pandemic. In addition, his vaccination programme has been months late and only 5% of the population has been inoculated to date.

According to data from the public health centre Fiocruz, 25 of the country's 27 state capitals have intensive care units (ICU) on the verge of collapse, with over 80% of their capacity used, while the capital, Brasilia, has reached the limit and two cities - Porto Alegre and Campo Grande - have exceeded it. The situation is agonising in the Amazonian capital of Manaus, the epicentre of the new variant called P.1, where all the country's ills are concentrated.

Opposition leader and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose prison sentences were overturned by the Supreme Court on Wednesday, called on the population to get vaccinated and not follow "any stupid decision" by the president or the health ministry. "Many of these deaths could have been avoided if we had had a government that had implemented basic measures," he said of Bolsonaro's federal executive.

The world's worst response

A study by the Australian think tank Lowi Institute, which has analysed the management of the pandemic in 100 countries based on six criteria, has placed Brazil at the bottom of its ranking. The South American country has historically stood out for its enviable health system - universal, free and one of the largest in the world. Until now, its track record had been impeccable, with a National Immunisation Program founded in 1973 that helped eradicate polio and rubella, and currently offers more than 20 vaccines free of charge to all municipalities. But Bolsonaro's government has broken all patterns, defying the scientists who advised him, branding all those who feared the virus as "sissies", and going through three different health ministers in one year because of differences with the president over the management of the pandemic.

Over the past year, he has used emergency public funds for the production and distribution of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to cure covid-19, while rejecting Pfizer's offer for 70 million doses, which could have begun distribution in December. The reason: that the conditions of the contract, the same ones that apply to all countries in the world, were "abusive". Finally, in the face of social pressure, the federal government began the vaccination programme on Jan. 18, with vaccines from the British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and the Chinese company Sinovac. The country, which started late, is also having major distribution problems, and several states had to suspend vaccination in February due to a lack of doses. If vaccination continues at the current pace, it will take Brazil more than four years to vaccinate the entire population.