Scandal-Plagued Brazil Could Soon Become The Global Leader In COVID-19 Deaths

Brazil’s Congress is two months into an explosive investigation into far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s denialist handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

His government is facing corruption allegations related to the purchasing of vaccines, which it has administered far too slowly to slow the virus’ spread, and lawmakers are seeking Bolsonaro’s impeachment. The Brazilian Supreme Court is probing one of the alleged vaccine schemes, and on Saturday, tens of thousands of anti-Bolsonaro protesters blanketed the streets of the country’s largest cities for the third time in the last two months.

All the while, Brazil’s pandemic continues to wreak havoc on South America’s largest country. In the next two months, Brazil will likely surpass the United States as the global leader in COVID-19 deaths, one of the country’s top scientists projects.

“I have no doubt that in 60 days or so, we are going to pass the U.S. in total numbers of deaths,” said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a Duke University neuroscientist who has modeled Brazil’s pandemic outlook from São Paulo since last year. 

This grim milestone will further bolster Bolsonaro’s critics, who for a year now have asserted that the right-wing leader has spent more time spreading misinformation and fighting pandemic-related restrictions, the media and political opponents than the virus itself.

Nearly 530,000 Brazilians have died from COVID-19, according to official figures. That trails only the U.S., where nearly 605,000 deaths have occurred.

But while rates of new cases and deaths have plummeted in the U.S. as most of the country has been vaccinated, Brazil has suffered an average of 1,500 deaths per day over the last week, putting the country on pace to dislodge the United States from its ignominious perch atop the list of deaths, a position it has held since April 2020. (Some experts in both countries believe the official figures are lower than the actual number of deaths.)

Brazil’s current daily death toll has decreased from early June, when daily deaths rose to nearly 2,000 and experts feared the country was on the cusp of a devastating third wave. New infections have dropped 33% over the last two weeks, and Monday’s 695 recorded deaths were the fewest since March, according to The New York Times. State health systems, which overflowed to the brink of collapse in some areas during a March surge, are in better shape now, and rates of hospitalization and critical care vacancies are both improving.

But some experts still see signs of concern everywhere they look.

“It’s going down, but we’re nowhere near relaxing or feeling that the worst has passed, especially because the first few cases of the delta variant are being detected in Brazil,” Marcia Castro, the chair of Harvard’s Department of Global Health and Population, said from Rio de Janeiro.

“We’re not really doing anything different, and there’s still a lot of misinformation circulating ― some of it right there from the top levels of the government. So [while] it’s looking better, we’re not completely protected from a new surge.”

The delta variant that has battered other parts of the world and forced some countries to reimpose lockdowns and other restrictions could soon pose a threat to Brazil. The country’s health ministry confirmed in late June that a woman who died on April 18 had been infected with the variant, the country’s first known death related to the strain that is believed to have originated in India.

São Paulo officials confirmed the first delta variant infection there on Monday, driving worries that the variant could spread quickly from Brazil’s largest city during the Southern Hemisphere winter, which has already featured abnormally low temperatures in parts of the country. 

“We are seeing the signs that winter is going to be pretty, pretty dangerous,” Nicolelis said. 

Brazil has administered more than 100 million vaccine doses, and more than one-third of its population has received at least one dose. But just 13% of its eligible population is fully vaccinated — a total that lags well behind Chile and Uruguay, which have both vaccinated more than half of their adult populations, the largest shares in Latin America (though the two countries’ populations are much smaller than Brazil’s).

Brazil has long been widely considered a global leader in infectious disease management and vaccine administration  — an experienced nation that has developed new treatments, conducted pioneering vaccine experiments and, in the past, has inoculated millions of people per day against viral infections. 

Much of Brazil’s early struggles were due to a lack of vaccine doses, a problem the country is still facing. But even as the speed of rollout improves — Brazil administered 2 million doses on some days in June — the vaccines have emerged as yet another source of frustration and anger with Bolsonaro’s government, and another example of the ways he has mismanaged the pandemic.

“Brazil has the knowledge and experience to do it,” Castro said. “The problem is, the national immunization program, which has been internationally recognized as terrific, is not happening the way it should happen, if we had guidance coming from the top levels.”

Much as in the U.S., Brazilian state and municipal governments have been left to determine their own timelines and strategies for administering vaccines, hampering the country’s overall response and potentially exacerbating existing disparities between Brazilians who live in richer and poorer areas of the country. 

“In the absence of this national coordination, municipalities have had to make decisions that they’ve never had to make before,” Castro continued. “If it had the doses, and the national coordination, Brazil could have a much higher percentage of the population already vaccinated.”

Bolsonaro, a vaccine skeptic who has downplayed the severity of the virus and opposed lockdowns and other mitigation measures, ignored early offers from Pfizer to supply Brazil with vaccines last year, according to testimony presented during an official congressional investigation into the government’s handling of the pandemic.

The government has also faced allegations of corruption around its attempts to secure vaccines: Last week, a man claiming to represent a U.S.-based medical supply company alleged that a member of the Bolsonaro government attempted to negotiate a $1-per-dose bribe while acquiring vaccines, Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, reported. The full nature of the scheme is unclear, and the U.S. company has denied elements of the report, but the Brazilian Health Ministry fired the appointee involved in the alleged negotiations. 

Brazil’s Supreme Court authorized the attorney general on Friday to probe the allegations involving the India-developed Covaxin vaccine after an official from the Health Ministry testified to the congressional commission that the government had paid more than market rate to acquire the doses. 

Bolsonaro has denied wrongdoing or any knowledge of the alleged actions of his ministries in both cases. But the scope of the tragedy hammering his country and the information that has come out during the congressional inquiry has pushed his approval ratings to new lows and driven angry Brazilians to the streets for mass demonstrations of the sort they avoided earlier in the pandemic. 

On Saturday, thousands of protesters swarmed streets in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other major cities, calling for Bolsonaro’s ouster. Protest organizers had expressed reservations about staging the July 3 marches after previous protests drew such large crowds, but ultimately decided they could do so safely by asking attendees to wear masks and social distance. The desperation of the government’s failed response to the pandemic required a public rebuke, they argued.

It is unlikely for now that the allegations of corruption or Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic will lead to the premature end of his presidency, even as more than 100 members of Congress have petitioned for his impeachment.

But early polls suggest that Bolsonaro could lose to former President Luiz Inácio da Silva in next year’s presidential elections, and Bolsonaro has become more desperate in the face of the crises enveloping his presidency: His government has cracked down on dissent and criticism, and Bolsonaro himself has already begun laying the groundwork to claim that a potential election loss is due to fraud. 

Whether Brazil ultimately passes the United States in coronavirus deaths doesn’t alter the scale of the tragedies that have hit both countries. The U.S., notably, could still surpass its death toll from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, when an estimated 675,000 people died, and regional disparities in vaccination rates have left large swaths of the country vulnerable to the delta variant. In both countries, skeptical presidents who opposed restrictions, painted the virus as a conspiracy and peddled disinformation ensured the outbreaks were worse than they should have been.  

“The two countries have lost more than 1.2 million people. It’s completely unbearable,” Castro said. “Passing the U.S. ― maybe we will, but that’s what concerns me the least. What concerns me the most is what’s behind those huge numbers in both countries.”

But while the U.S. has largely reversed course under President Joe Biden since he defeated Donald Trump last year, Bolsonaro has forged ahead. Since Biden took office, “Brazil is the only country in the world in which you have to fight the pandemic and the political pandemonium,” Nicolelis said. “The government doesn’t actually see the point of fighting the pandemic, and actually wants to see it run its course.”




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