Experts blame Bolsonaro govt as Brazil Covid-19 death toll nears 100,000

Passengers at a train station in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Political chaos ensued when President Jair Bolsonaro railed against decisions by state and local authorities to impose stay-at-home measures, arguing that the economic damage would be worse
Passengers at a train station in downtown Sao Paulo, Brazil. Political chaos ensued when President Jair Bolsonaro railed against decisions by state and local authorities to impose stay-at-home measures, arguing that the economic damage would be worse than the disease.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SAO PAULO • Five months after confirming its first case of the coronavirus, Brazil is fast approaching the bleak milestone of 100,000 deaths from Covid-19, a tragedy that experts blame on the country's lack of a coherent response.

It will be just the second country to cross that grim threshold, after the United States where the death toll is now more than 150,000.

"It's a tragedy, one of the worst Brazil has ever seen," said sociologist Celso Rocha de Barros, as the number of infections in the sprawling South American country approached three million - also the second-highest in the world, after the US.

Brazil confirmed its first case of Covid-19 on Feb 26: a Sao Paulo businessman who returned from a trip to Italy.

The country of 212 million people registered its first death on March 16. Dr Paulo Lotufo, an epidemiologist at the University of Sao Paulo, said: "At that point, Brazil was more or less getting organised to deal with the pandemic."

But then, political chaos ensued.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro condemned the "hysteria" around the virus and railed against decisions by state and local authorities to impose stay-at-home measures to contain it, arguing that the economic damage would be worse than the disease.

Meanwhile, the country's infection curve exploded. Chilling images emerged from Sao Paulo of six-minute speed burials by grave diggers clad head to toe in protective gear and mass plots excavated by bulldozers in the Amazon city of Manaus.

The curve has plateaued in recent weeks, but at a high level: Brazil has registered an average of around 1,000 deaths per day for more than a month.

The toll stood at 2.9 million infections and 97,256 deaths late on Wednesday. The country appeared to be on track to record its 100,000th death this weekend.

A fervent advocate of the drug hydroxychloroquine to fight against Covid-19 - despite a lack of evidence for its effectiveness - President Bolsonaro churned through two health ministers in less than a month, after falling out with them over the response to the pandemic.

The post is now held on an interim basis by an army general with no prior medical experience.

The President, meanwhile, has continued to downplay the virus, even after catching it himself last month. He was forced into quarantine for three weeks. "Nearly everyone here is going to catch it eventually. What are you afraid of? Face up to it," he said after emerging from isolation.

The message from the Bolsonaro government has been "the exact opposite" of what it should have been, said Mr de Barros. "Lockdown is difficult. It has to be coordinated by a leader with political credibility... You have to explain to people that it's hard but necessary to avoid a massacre."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2020, with the headline 'Experts blame Bolsonaro govt as Brazil death toll nears 100,000'. Print Edition | Subscribe