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Explained: Why Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis is becoming a threat for rest of the world

Brazil Covid-19 Cases: Brazil registered 4,75,503 new Covid-19 cases and 11,009 deaths last week — both a record high. Why are the numbers suddenly rising in the country, and what are the wider implications of this crisis?

Written by Deeptesh Sen , Edited by Explained Desk | Kolkata |
Updated: March 16, 2021 12:42:20 pm
Brazil, Brazil Covid-19 cases, Brazil coronavirus, Brazil news, Brazil Covid deaths, Jair Bolsonaro, Indian ExpressCovid-19 patients lie on beds at a field hospital built inside a sports coliseum in Santo Andre, on the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)

The second wave of the pandemic that hit Brazil has been far worse, with the country now recording more than 70,000 cases and around 2,000 deaths daily.

According to Johns Hopkins University of Medicine data, Brazil registered 4,75,503 new cases and 11,009 deaths last week — both a record high. On March 10, the country recorded 2,286 Covid deaths, the highest in a day so far, the Reuters reported. It also recorded close to 80,000 fresh cases.

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Why are the numbers suddenly rising in Brazil and what are the wider implications of this crisis? We explain.

How serious is the Covid-19 crisis in Brazil now?

The country recorded 1,597,789 new cases and 36,836 deaths last month. With this, Brazil has registered more than 11.2 million confirmed Covid cases and close to 2,70,000 deaths so far. It lies third on the list of countries with the highest number of cases till date, only behind the United States and India.

Brazil, Brazil Covid-19 cases, Brazil coronavirus, Brazil news, Brazil Covid deaths, Jair Bolsonaro, Indian Express Brazil’s Covid-19 graph from March 2020 (Source: Johns Hopkins University of Medicine)

Brazil’s daily case count and the number of deaths being reported every day is the highest in the world now. It has also reported the second-highest number of Covid deaths till date after the United States.

Brazil, Brazil Covid-19 cases, Brazil coronavirus, Brazil news, Brazil Covid deaths, Jair Bolsonaro, Indian Express Source: Johns Hopkins University of Medicine

After a dip in number of cases late last year, Brazil’s Covid graph has been rising again, with things taking a turn for the worse from January this year.

With the numbers surging, the country is facing “overload and even collapse of health systems”, a recent report published by the state-run Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) has said.

According to the report, at least 13 states now have hospitals operating with more than 90% ICU occupancy. The report adds that 25 of the 27 capitals in the country have occupancy rates for ICU Covid-19 beds for adults equal to or greater than 80%, 15 of which are greater than 90%. Among them, Porto Velho, the capital of Rondônia, has hospitals operating with 100% ICU occupancy.

Occupancy in many other state capitals is also close to 100%.

What is behind the surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths?

Experts have attributed the surge in the number of cases and deaths to a more contagious variant of the virus, P.1, which is also known as the Brazil variant.

The P.1 variant, which had swept through Manaus, capital of the northern state of Amazonas, is more infectious and does not spare people who have already suffered from Covid earlier.

The P.1 strain is being considered to be a variant of particular concern, alongside the mutant strains that have emerged from the United Kingdom and South Africa.

Genomic surveillance carried out by a team of researchers from Brazil following the outbreak in Manaus found that the P.1 lineage carries a collection of mutations which are located in the spike protein receptor binding domain, the region of the virus involved in recognition of the angiotensin-converting enzyme-2 receptor cell surface receptor.

By the end of February, the P.1 variant had spread to 21 of the 26 Brazilian states.

Dr Roberto Kraenkel of the Covid-19 Brazil Observatory recently told the Washington Post the information that the P.1 strain is becoming dominant across Brazil is an “atom bomb”.

The mutant strain can be twice as transmittable as the original virus and can also evade immunity in people who have developed antibodies after being infected earlier.

Moreover, Brazil’s vaccination campaign has witnessed very slow progress so far, with just 8.6 million (4% of the population) having received the first dose.

Brazil, Brazil Covid-19 cases, Brazil coronavirus, Brazil news, Brazil Covid deaths, Jair Bolsonaro, Indian Express The United States has the most Covid-19 cases and deaths (Source: Johns Hopkins University of Medicine)

The national association of health secretaries recently said in a statement, “The acceleration of the epidemic in various states is leading to the collapse of their public and private hospital systems, which may soon become the case in every region of Brazil. Sadly, the anaemic rollout of vaccines and the slow pace at which they’re becoming available still does not suggest that this scenario will be reversed in the short term.”

One of the reasons behind the slow pace of vaccination is that Brazil has struggled to procure enough doses. President Jair Bolsonaro’s scepticism about vaccines has not helped the cause either.

Why are many Brazilians blaming President Bolsonaro for the current situation?

With the crisis worsening in the country, President Jair Bolsonaro courted controversy recently when he asked Brazilians to “stop whining” about Covid.

Speaking at a recent event, Bolsonaro said, “Stop whining. How long are you going to keep crying about it? How long are you going to stay home? How long are you going to keep everything closed? People can’t take it anymore.”

Bolsonaro, who has opposed Covid restrictions such as social distancing and wearing of masks, has been widely accused of repeatedly downplaying the implications of the Covid crisis.

Last month, during his weekly live programme, he said masks were bad for children because they lead to “irritability, headache, difficulty concentrating, impaired learning ability, dizziness, fatigue and a decreased perception of happiness”. Bolsonaro himself has flouted social distancing measures on several occasions and got infected with Covid last year.

Even when cases are rising, Brazil has only imposed partial or local lockdowns in certain states.

In fact, Bolsonaro recently imposed new restrictions making it difficult for states that impose lockdown measures to get art funding. Cultural projects in Brazil are considered for funding now only if they encourage in-person interactions or are from areas “where there is no restriction on circulation, curfew and lockdown”.

Moreover, Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had publicly contradicted the President on the need to follow social distancing norms, was fired by Bolsonaro. Mandetta later told the press that the President had stopped listening to him or the health ministry.

The far-right President, who infamously called Covid “the little flu”, has also on many occasions questioned the efficacy of vaccines and also said the Pzifer vaccine can produce an extreme side-effect of turning a person into a crocodile.

The President’s remarks have been strongly criticised by the scientific community, including by the likes of Doctor in Epidemiology and former dean of the Federal University of Pelotas, Professor Pedro Hallal, who even wrote a letter to scientific magazine The Lancet, with the title “SOS Brazil: Attacks to Science”.

Brazil, Brazil Covid-19 cases, Brazil coronavirus, Brazil news, Brazil Covid deaths, Jair Bolsonaro, Indian Express Healthcare workers receive a patient suspected of having Covid-19 at the HRAN Hospital in Brasilia, Brazil, Wednesday, March 3, 2021. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

Scientists fear that Bolsonaro’s statements may dissuade many people from getting vaccinated while experts have also argued that lack of government planning is to blame for the slow pace at which the inoculation programme is progressing at the moment.

José Gomes Temporão, who was Brazil’s health minister during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, has said that Bolsonaro has no definite plan to fight the pandemic and he must take the blame for the worsening crisis.

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What are the implications of the worsening Covid crisis in Brazil?

Epidemiologists have warned that Brazil would soon become an open-air laboratory for the virus if the crisis is not contained. They have said that uncontrolled outbreaks in communities with growing immunity can produce far more dangerous strains of the virus in Brazil.

Epidemiologist Jesem Orellana of Fiocruz/Amazonia has said that Brazil has now become a threat to humanity. “The fight against Covid-19 was lost in 2020 and there is not the slightest chance of reversing this tragic circumstance in the first half of 2021. The best we can do is hope for the miracle of mass vaccination or a radical change in the management of the pandemic. Today, Brazil is a threat to humanity and an open-air laboratory where impunity in management seems to be the rule,” Orellana told AFP.

Scientists fear if the situation is not brought under control, Brazil can become a breeding ground for different mutant strains of the virus which can spread rapidly to other countries.

What comes as a reprieve though is a new study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which has stated that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is highly effective against the P.1 strain. Brazil has recently approved the Pfizer vaccine for widespread use. The challenge will now be to procure enough doses and vaccinate people rapidly to arrest the spread of the pandemic.

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