BRASILIA (AFP) - Brazil's death toll in the coronavirus pandemic surpassed 300,000 on Wednesday (March 24), as a deadly surge that has pushed hospitals to the brink made it the second country after the United States to pass the bleak milestone.
A total of 300,685 people in Brazil have now died of Covid-19, the Health Ministry said, as the country struggled to deal with an explosion of cases blamed on a local variant of the virus that is believed to be more contagious.
Brazil currently has the highest daily death toll in the pandemic by far. It has more than tripled since the start of the year, to an average of 2,273 for the past week.
President Jair Bolsonaro announced earlier he was launching a crisis committee to deal with the pandemic, a change of course amid mounting pressure over a situation he has repeatedly minimised.
The far-right President vowed no one would "politicise" the pandemic, after a meeting with the heads of both houses of Congress, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the central bank chief, most of his Cabinet and six of Brazil's 27 governors.
"The prevailing sentiment was solidarity and the commitment to minimise the effects of the pandemic," Mr Bolsonaro said at the presidential palace. "Life comes first."
He said the group had agreed to create a coordinating council with Brazil's 27 governors, led by Senate speaker Rodrigo Pacheco.
He himself will convene a crisis committee that will meet weekly, he said.
The announcements appeared to do little to tame criticism of Mr Bolsonaro, who has flouted expert advice on lockdowns and face masks, pushed a drug regimen he calls the "early treatment" package that scientists say does not work, and spoken out against vaccines.
Newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo accused the President of "lying" when he said his government had worked ceaselessly to fight the virus.
"For 12 months, Bolsonaro minimised the pandemic, promoted crowds, spoke out against mask use and halted talks to secure vaccines," it said.
Mr Bolsonaro has softened his position on vaccines under pressure, saying Wednesday's meeting had "unanimously agreed" on the need for mass vaccination.
However, he was apparently unable to resist his habitual plug for "early treatment" with hydroxychloroquine and other drugs discarded as ineffective against Covid-19 in a raft of studies.
"We also spoke about the possibility of the early treatment regimen," he said.
"That comes under the Health Ministry, which respects the right and duty of all doctors to treat their patients, including with off-label drug prescriptions."
His new health minister - his fourth of the pandemic - later said in his first press conference that he was setting up a special secretariat within the ministry to fight the pandemic.
The minister, cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga, also vowed to triple the number of people vaccinated to one million per day, "in the near term".
Brazil, a sprawling country of 212 million people, has now administered at least one dose of vaccine to around six per cent of its population, but is far off pace to reach its goal of vaccinating all adults by the end of the year.
The new wave of Covid-19 has pushed many hospitals to breaking point, with intensive care beds and oxygen supplies at critically low levels.
The Pan American Health Organisation warned Tuesday that the situation in Brazil was "dire", and threatening the rest of the region.
"The virus continues to surge dangerously across Brazil," Paho director Carissa Etienne said in Washington.
"Cases and deaths are increasing, and ICU (intensive care unit) bed occupancy is very high in many states."