BRAZIL became the third country in the world to breach 10 million coronavirus cases, with infections picking up speed in recent weeks as a new variant spread amid a shortage of vaccines.
Latin America’s largest nation reported 51,879 new cases Thursday, pushing the total confirmed to 10,030,626, according to Health Ministry data. It’s a toll that lags only the U.S. and India. Deaths rose by 1,367 to 243,457, the second-highest globally.
“Brazil’s situation is really bad, with contagion at high levels. We’re seeing health systems in several states either in collapse or close to it,” said Estevao Urbano, an infectious disease expert and director at Brazil’s Infectology Society. “We’re still not moving fast enough to know for sure this pandemic won’t get worse, or will at least hold at these levels. We should be extremely concerned about the numbers and this new variant, which could be more dangerous.”
While encouraging signs in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic are emerging globally, Brazil is battling a resurgence of the virus, which has been made worse by year-end gatherings and a new strain found in the Northern city of Manaus. For most of this year, the country has reported over 50,000 new infections a day, about double the rate for October and November. Deaths have hovered above 1,000 a day.
The new wave has added to the strain on the public health-care system, already suffering from decades of underinvestment, and led state governors to increase pressure on President Jair Bolsonaro’s administration to aid hospitals and buy more vaccines.
The severity of the crisis was on display in January as Manaus, nestled deep in the Amazon rainforest, declared a state of emergency and began to airlift patients to other states after the local health-care system collapsed. Cities in the states of Roraima and Bahia, in the poor north and northeastern regions, have also seen hospitals reach capacity. Ceara imposed a curfew for its 9 million residents as the number of patients in ICU beds tripled in the past month.
“We’re seeing the virus circulate in a way we never imagined,” Jose Sarto, the mayor of Ceara’s capital city, Fortaleza, said when he announced the new restrictions Wednesday. “Every indicator signals we’ll reach the previous peak, and could surpass it. It’s very worrying.”
At least 12 Brazilian states are reporting higher numbers of cases and deaths than in the first wave of the pandemic, according to Domingos Alves, a professor of medicine who’s part of the Covid-19 Brasil monitoring group.
The country was expected to do better vaccinating than it did containing the disease, because Brazil’s public health-care system knows the challenge of mass vaccination drives. It carries out several campaigns each year with about 20 types of shots offered through 35,000 outposts nationwide.
But the country was late to start, kicking off its campaign in mid-January with just 6 million shots on hand after approving formulations from Sinovac Biotech Ltd. and AstraZeneca Plc. Both have agreements to be locally produced, but manufacturing suffered delays as a key ingredient took longer than expected to arrive from China.
A month later, nine capitals including Rio de Janeiro have suspended immunizations after shots ran out. As of Wednesday, about 5.9 million doses had been administered, according to states’ data compiled by Bloomberg. The federal government doesn’t have a national count.
Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello pledged to deliver over 454.9 million doses to states by year-end in a meeting with governors Wednesday. The count includes shots that haven’t been cleared for use by the local regulator, and that the government has yet to buy.Bottom of Form
Pazuello, an Army general with no medical experience, has been harshly criticized for his handling of the pandemic. The Supreme Court has ordered an inquiry into Pazuello’s actions during the Manaus crisis, which saw patients dying because oxygen ran out at hospitals.
Critics have also panned Bolsonaro. Since the start of the crisis, the president has dismissed the virus as a “just a flu” and clashed with governors over social distancing measures that, he argued, would lead to poverty and unemployment that would kill more people than the virus.
“The main responsible for these numbers is the president, who continues to insist in the wrong approach he’s taken since the start of the crisis,” Maranhao Governor Flavio Dino said in an interview. “Bolsonaro minimizes the tragedy.”
The political infighting also plagued the vaccination drive, with Bolsonaro often bashing vaccines and initially refusing to buy Sinovac’s booster because of its Chinese origin.
“We started 2021 in a critical situation. The numbers show just how big our failure was,” Wellington Dias, the governor of Piaui, said in an interview. “Vaccinating is the only way.”