Coronavirus pandemic

Brazil's Covid-19 crisis as big and complicated as country itself

BRASILIA • Brazil is being battered by the coronavirus crisis, but the damage is uneven across the sprawling South American country, where experts say chaotic policymaking has only made a complicated situation worse.

Like the United States - the only country that has recorded more infections and deaths in the pandemic - Brazil is a continent-sized giant with myriad regions and sub-regions, held together by a federal system that can breed a confusing cacophony of national, state and local policies even at the best of times.

Brazil registered 51,147 new Covid-19 cases and 1,211 deaths in the previous 24 hours, its Ministry of Health announced on Saturday. The national statistics on the new coronavirus - more than 2.3 million infections and 86,499 deaths - mask a varied panorama across the country of 212 million people.

"It's very heterogeneous," said Dr Marcelo Gomes of leading public health research institute Fiocruz.

Brazil's 27 states are all facing different epidemics. Even within states, "things can change a lot from one region to the next", Dr Gomes told Agence France-Presse.

Nationwide, the curve of daily Covid-19 deaths in Brazil has been in a long plateau since last month, albeit in a very high range. At the state level, things are murkier.

On average over the past seven days, four states posted declining daily death tolls, including once-devastated Amazonas in the north and Ceara in the north-east.

Ten had rising numbers, including in the south and west-central regions, which had been less affected until recently. And 13 were basically stable, including Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, the two hardest-hit states.

In some states, including Ceara and Rio de Janeiro, there is talk of a "second wave, even though the first wave never really tapered off", said Dr Gomes.

President Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the pandemic, comparing the virus to a "little flu" and calling the reaction to it "hysteria".

The far-right leader, who regularly defies social distancing guidelines, tested positive for the virus himself on July 7 after developing a fever and fatigue.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro preparing to go for a ride on his motorbike in Brasilia on Saturday, after announcing that he tested negative for the coronavirus. He tested positive on July 7. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
  • 51,147

    Number of new Covid-19 cases Brazil registered in the previous 24 hours as of Saturday.

  • 1,211

    Number of Covid-19 deaths in Brazil in the previous 24 hours as of Saturday.

On Saturday, after spending nearly three weeks in self-isolation at the presidential palace, he said he had tested negative for the virus - crediting his controversial use of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, whose efficacy against Covid-19 has not been proven.

Amid Mr Bolsonaro's attacks on stay-at-home measures to contain the virus, the Supreme Court gave the state and local authorities the final say in the matter.

But states and municipalities have imposed an inelegant hodgepodge of quarantine measures, with little in the way of enforcement and a widespread lack of adherence. That has been followed, in some cases, by poorly designed policies to reopen the economy, which many experts have deemed premature.

Meanwhile, the annual New Year's Eve celebrations, which traditionally see millions of people gathered on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro, have been cancelled this year.

The celebrations are "not viable in this pandemic scenario, without a vaccine", the city's tourism office said in a statement, noting that the world-famous Carnival celebrations, normally set for February, might also have to be cancelled. Instead, a virtual New Year celebration is being planned.

The World Health Organisation said last week that Brazil finally appeared to have reached the plateau, urging it to use the occasion to take control.

"We're still a long way from that. It's not that we're not seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. We can't even see the tunnel," said Dr Jose David Urbaez, an infectious disease specialist at Asa Norte Regional Hospital in Brasilia.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 27, 2020, with the headline Brazil's Covid-19 crisis as big and complicated as country itself. Subscribe