Brazil recorded the highest number of deaths per day for coronavirus on Tuesday: 1,179 killed.
It was another dismal statistic for the country, which has seen the coronavirus outbreak explode in recent weeks. From May 21, Brazil has confirmed more than 291,000 positive cases, the third highest in the world, and more than 18,800 Brazilians have died from the virus. Insufficient testing means that both the number of cases and the actual death toll are likely higher.
It is devastating, but it is also what many predicted could happen in the Latin American country. The Brazilian public health system was under pressure before the pandemic and the hospital systems in some of the major cities are now about to be completely overwhelmed. Lack of sufficient supplies and health care equipment has endangered frontline workers; more than 116 nurses died in Brazil so far.
The virus is now spreading rapidly among more vulnerable communities, especially in favelas on the outskirts of cities, where social distance is almost impossible due to tight or unsanitary conditions and because many people have to work every day to survive. It also has reached remote indigenous communities, who are far from adequate health care.
And then there is the President, Jair Bolsonaro, who mistreated the outbreak from the start. He has consistently downplayed the severity of the virus, the decisions of vocally opposing governors to impose lockdown measures, personally attended anti-lockdown protests, and called for company reopening despite the growing outbreak.
Asked by reporters on April 28 for a response to the then record the death toll of 474 deaths on that day, Bolsonaro replied, “So what?”
“I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?” he continued.
His position has not changed because the coronavirus has intensified in the country.
In his struggle to reopen the economy, he did attempted to designate gyms and salons as essential businesses. In April he fired his health minister; last week, the man who replaced the dismissed health minister. And now Bolsonaro endorses the use of hydroxychloroquine, the controversial anti-malarial drug President Donald Trump claims to use to prevent coronavirus (although there is little evidence that it actually works).
Meanwhile, the number of deaths and deaths continues to rise – and the crisis has not yet peaked.
“We are in disaster”, Carlos Fortaleza, an epidemiologist at São Paulo State University, told the Wall Street Journal earlier this month.
The coronavirus crisis in Brazil is on the increase. Bolsonaro has not admitted.
Bolsonaro’s dismissive stance has undermined efforts to control the virus and hampered any chance of a coordinated federal response.
State governors have defied him and introduced strict lockdowns. São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, two of the hardest hit states, have tightened the restrictions in recent weeks, including extending home orders and making masks mandatory.
The Brazilian Supreme Court previously backed the power of state governments to take measures to stay at home, but Bolsonaro has launched an even more aggressive cutback.
Last week – just as Brazil saw what was the highest one-day death toll at the time – he signed an order that would indicate some companies, like gyms and nail studios, as ‘essential’ – an attempt to bypass state locks. “Governors who disagree with the decree can file a lawsuit,” said Bolsonaro tweeted.
At least ten governors said they would ignore Bolsonaro’s orders, according to Reuters, but the arrogant attitude of the President has likely undermined widespread compliance, even in areas that have adopted strict rules.
“The fact that governors and mayors who want to do the right thing must be somewhat contrary to what the president is saying is a problem,” said Marcia Castro, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told me, “because that poses great challenges for people’s compliance with the measures. Because once you have a polarized society and you have conflicting messages, people decide to follow who they want. ‘
The president has one fiery base of support, and his fans tend to fully comment on his rhetoric and are suspicious of the mainstream media. As Bolsonaro calls for these lockdown measures, so do they.
Bolsonaro has even taken part in anti-lockdown protests, taking pictures with protesters and often defying social distance guidelines. Last weekend, he did pushups with supporters. “We hope to be free of this question soon, for the good of all of us,” Bolsonaro said in Brasilia last weekend. “Brazil is coming back stronger.”
Bolsonaro’s stance also ruled out a real, coherent response from his government, leaving states and cities largely alone to find resources and medical supplies. The country continues lag behind in testing and suffers from equipment shortages. According to Bloomberg, the federal government bought 15,000 fans, but due to logistical problems, only 800 have been distributed so far.
Bolsonaro has embraced hydroxychloroquine
Now add a disturbing fixation with the drug hydroxychloroquine to the list of similarities between the two leaders.
Hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine are anti-malarial drugs that were seen as a possible treatment for the coronavirus early in the pandemic, after small but widely criticized studies from China and France. Newer studies have shown no benefits from the use of hydroxychloroquine, and at least a has shown potential negative effects when administered the drug to critically ill Covid-19 patients, although that study has not been peer-reviewed.
Public health officials in the U.S. and Brazil have warned against the widespread use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine outside of hospital and clinical settings and have warned against promoting the drug as a “panacea”, especially in the absence of robust clinical trials of the drug.
Yet Trump has done just that. And now Bolsonaro has taken a similar approach, pushing the drug over the advice of public health officials.
In late March, Bolsonaro posted a video hyped the drug, falsely claiming it was “Works in any place.” Facebook, Instagram and Twitter later removed the videoand said it had violated their misinformation policies regarding Covid-19.
Last week, Bolsonaro instructed his health minister, Nelson Teich, to issue new federal guidelines to enable the wider use of the antimalarial drugs for the treatment of the coronavirus.
But Teich had deviated from Bolsonaro in public on the use of hydroxychloroquine, and on Friday he quit his job – which he had been practicing for about a month.
“Life is about choices, and today I chose to leave”, Teich said, avoiding details about his departure. “I didn’t take the job for the position myself. I accepted because I thought I could help the country and its people. ‘
Teich had taken over the Department of Health in April, after Bolsonaro fired the previous Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta. Mandetta had publicly contradicted Bolsonaro by advocating social distance measures and supporting the shutdowns of the governors.
Many Brazilians and political leaders denounced Mandetta’s resignation: Brazilians protested closure, banging pots and pans out of windows and calls for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. When Teich stepped down, they protested again.
General Eduardo Pazuello, who joined the service in April and had no real public health experience before taking the job, is now interim health minister. And he seems ready to go with Bolsonaro’s orders.
As Reuters reports, “Brazil’s federal guidelines previously listed the drug only as an unproven treatment for severe cases of the respiratory disease COVID-19 caused by the new coronavirus.”
Now: “The new guidelines suggest dosing the antimalarial drugs together with the antibiotic azithromycin at the onset of symptoms. Patients or family members will have to sign a waiver acknowledging possible side effects. ”
On Twitter, Bolsonaro said on Wednesday that while chloroquine has not been scientifically proven as a treatment, it is controlled and used in Brazil and around the world.
“Still we’re at war:” Worse than being defeated is the shame you didn’t fight, ” He wrote.
– Ainda não existe comprovação científica, mas sendo monitorada e usada no Brasil e no mundo. Contudo, estamos em Guerra: “Pior do que ser derrotado é a vergonha de não ter lutado.”
– Deus abençoe o nosso Brazil. https://t.co/E0cu23id8g
– Jair M. Bolsonaro (@jairbolsonaro) May 20, 2020
Bolsonaro has also trumpeted the (unproven) miracles of chloroquine for his followers, and that belief has held up under his base.
On weekends, Bolsonaro fans, while certainly not social distance, greeted the president outside his hometown and praised chloroquine. “I know you heal me in the name of Jesus,” they sang. (SUS is short for the Brazilian health system.)
Os fanáticos do fã clube do presidente se superaram hoje. Ao ritmo de Tiririca, eles cantaram:
cloroquina lá do SUS,
eu sei que tu me curas,
em nome de jesus “
Eu daria risada, mas já passamos dessa phase há muito tempo.
– Felipe Neto (@felipeneto) May 17, 2020
This is where Brazil is: saddled with a leader who contradicts public health advice, advocates using unproven treatment, refuses to follow or promote social distance, and actively attempts to impose lockdown measures by governors, to thwart.
But those lockdown measures include a halt to the economy and fear of it the (very real) impact lockdown measures for the country’s already difficult economy appear to be the bulk of Bolsonaro’s resistance.
“I think he wants to be able to say in the next election:” Those governors have kept you from working; it would have been much better if I could have triumphed, ” Anthony Pereira, a professor of Brazilian studies at King’s College, London, said last month.
So it is better to use a miracle cure. “If they prioritize the economy, if the goal is to have everything open, it’s nice to give a speech that, you know,” I have the solution, let’s just have it taken by everyone, and then we can open the city, “” Castro, the professor at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health, said of both Bolsonaro and Trump. “I think it fits the story they have. It’s just chloroquine. It can be something else. “
None of this bodes well for Brazil’s response to the corona virus. Bolsonaro also represents a serious one political scandalAfter dismissing the head of federal police and resigning his Justice Minister, Bolsonaro accused of trying to interfere in law enforcement. Bolsonaro’s sons are under investigation, and now Bolsonaro is too, and the calls for accusation are growing.
Bolsonaro may survive it all, and the corona virus is currently overshadowing political turmoil. But more than 18,000 Brazilians’ deaths are hardly a distraction.