COVID-19 Deaths Continue to Surge in Brazil

How did Brazil become a global epicenter of the outbreak? After seeming to ease, is the Coronavirus making a comeback? What is the response of the government and the people of Brazil?


Agustin Diaz Gargiulo / Unsplash

The city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19.

It has been more than a year since COVID-19 began to ravage the world. While many countries have begun seeing a decline in the number of deaths, Brazil, one of the worst-hit countries in the world by the pandemic, is still struggling to keep control of the virus. 

As of June 11th, 482,019 people have died in Brazil based on data from Johns Hopkins University. Only the U.S. has a higher death toll. On May 10th, 2021, President Jair Bolsonaro, who has criticized lockdown measures and has told Brazilians to “stop whining” about the deadly virus, has announced the country is directing more than $1 billion toward the production and distribution of COVID-19 vaccines

This announcement comes amid an official inquiry approved by Brazil’s Supreme Court that opened late last month to investigate the government’s handling of the pandemic. In response, Bolsonaro has stated that he is not worried about the inquiry. 

So, why was Brazil hit so hard? 

Some experts thought that Brazil would be well equipped to rise to the challenge of a pandemic, based on its track record in past public health emergencies such as its response to the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in 2009. Brazil vaccinated 92 million people against the virus in just three months. 

Despite being underfunded, Brazil’s health care system is able to provide robust coverage across the country. Brazil also had adequate time to study the response of countries first hit by COVID-19. 

In early March 2020, Brazil declared a public health emergency, and the Ministry of Health urged state officials to cancel public events and put social distancing measures in place.

But Brazil’s response quickly went wrong, with efforts by state governments to combat the virus often conflicting with the positions adopted by the president, who pressured public health officials to get rid of social distancing recommendations, calling COVID-19 a “measly cold.”

“Enough fussing and whining. How much longer will the crying go on?” Bolsonaro told a crowd at an event back in March 2021. “How much longer will you stay at home and close everything? No one can stand it anymore. We regret the deaths, again, but we need a solution.”

Bolsonaro’s stance on the pandemic pitted him against governors and officials at the Ministry of Health. Two health ministers left after clashes with Mr. Bolsonaro, one was fired and the other quit, leaving Eduardo Pazuelle, a military general with no public health training, in charge of the pandemic response.

Despite the lack of leadership from the government, many Brazilians followed social distancing measures and complied with restrictions imposed on a local level, which experts believe was at least part of the reason the number of cases decreased in August 2020. Experts believe the loosening of these restrictions caused the recent surge in cases. The president’s response to the crisis has been widely criticized at home and abroad, but Mr. Bolsonaro has defended his approach. A day after the country passed 100,000 deaths in August 2020, he posted on Facebook that Brazil had “no shortage of resources, equipment or medication.”

In the first few months of the virus, one of the country’s main initiatives was boosting the production of hydroxychloroquine and encouraging doctors to prescribe it, despite a medical consensus that the drug is ineffective and potentially dangerous. 

Last July, Bolsonaro disclosed that he contracted COVID-19 after he was seen outside without a mask and talking to other people. Three weeks later, Bolaonaro revealed he had tested negative and posted a picture of himself holding a box of hydroxychloroquine, an unproven treatment against the virus. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump had also stated he took the drug to protect against the coronavirus, despite warnings from his own government that it should only be administered for COVID-19 in a hospital or research setting due to potentially fatal side effects. 

In addition, during the beginning, Brazil’s government struggled to import essential equipment like Coronavirus tests and ventilators. Months later, the same problems remained as the country struggled to buy enough syringes and needles for vaccines.

Experts have also criticized the government for failing to institute a robust testing and tracing system. Brazil has done fewer than 1 million tests per month since the pandemic started, while the United States now does between 20 to 30 million per month.

Even as the crisis worsened, information about Brazil’s response to it grew scarce. Officials often refuse to answer questions from reporters at tightly controlled news conferences.

Despite the many criticisms faced by President Bolsnaro and his administration, according to the latest Ibope poll 33 percent of Brazilians approved of Mr. Bolsonaro ‘s administration. Some analysts say that monthly payments of $120 to $240 to people who had lost their income as a result of the pandemic has helped the president’s approval ratings. 

Brazil’s economy minister, Paulo Guedes, said the government was ready to continue with this program beyond December 2020. But no new payments have been announced for 2021, which would likely send millions back to poverty.

Brazil’s chaotic response has deepened political polarization among supporters and critics of the president. Hospital systems have largely coped with the crush of patients, but the virus has taken a devastating toll on health care workers. Dozens of nurses and hospital technicians died after contracting the Coronavirus at work.

Like in other countries, some groups in Brazil have been hit worse than others. 

According to a recent survey from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, Black people were twice as likely as Caucasian people to have had COVID-19 symptoms. The study also found that Black Brazilians were more likely to lose their jobs or face pay cuts than Caucasian people during the pandemic.

An economic divide has also been exposed where the death rate in poorer cities has been substantially higher than in rich ones.

In the Amazon region, which has long suffered from a lack of resources and government attention, many health care workers assigned to work with Indigenous groups were themselves carriers of the virus. Without access to enough testing and protective gear, they most likely exposed the populations they intended to help.

The pandemic has exacerbated several of Brazil’s chronic problems. Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest has surged, and homicide rates have gone up.

Brazil’s economy is expected to contract by 4.5 percent this year, and capital flight is reaching levels not seen since the 1990s, when the country was grappling with hyperinflation. The path to economic recovery is unclear and there are almost 14 million Brazilians looking for jobs.

As of May 16th, 2021, around 17% of Brazil’s population of roughly 211 million have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to statistics compiled by Our World in Data.

In comparison to other South American countries such as Chile, which has vaccinated around 47% of its 19.1 million population making it one of the highest vaccination rates worldwide, Brazil’s low vaccination rate leaves millions of people inside and outside of its borders at risk to the more than 90 variants of the coronavirus circulating the country and any new mutations that could emerge

“Enough fussing and whining. How much longer will the crying go on?” Bolsonaro told a crowd at an event back in March 2021. “How much longer will you stay at home and close everything? No one can stand it anymore. We regret the deaths, again, but we need a solution.”