Brazil is now second only to the United States in terms of both Covid-19 cases and deaths, and its daily death toll is the highest in the world—conditions that public health officials within and beyond the South American country continue to partly blame on far-right President Jair Bolsonaro’s “reckless” response to the pandemic.
As of Sunday afternoon, Brazil—home to an estimated 211 million people—had more than 850,500 confirmed Covid-19 cases and over 42,700 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins global tracker. Journalists have repeatedly pointed out that the nation’s official numbers are likely too low due to insufficient testing.
“This is the worst public health crisis we’ve faced—and it has come at a time when we have the worst government in the world,” Daniel Dourado, a public health expert and lawyer from the University of São Paulo, told the Guardian. Dourado, who believes thousands of Brazilians could have been saved by a better government response, said, “The country is adrift.”
“Bolsonaro has played a pitiful role. I’ve not heard of a single country whose president has hampered the fight against the epidemic so much,” said @dadourado “It’s as if his policies are being driven by a [Freudian] death drive.” Bolsonaro has faced months of criticism for downplaying the threat posed by the virus—dismissing it as a “little flu,” refusing to wear a face mask or engage in social distancing, and challenging city and state lockdown restrictions that aimed to stop its spread. As the New York Times reported Saturday, the president has also come under fire for “his promotion of unproven remedies” such as the anti-malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.
“Decisions are being made not based on evidence and empirical data but rather on anecdotal reports,” Denise Garrett, a Brazilian-American epidemiologist who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more than 20 years, told the Times. “Bolsonaro invested a huge amount of money into an action that has not been proven to be effective at the expense of increasing testing and contact tracing.”
Brazil’s daily coronavirus death toll is now the highest in the world. Experts say President Jair Bolsonaro’s rejection of the emerging scientific consensus on how to fight the pandemic — and his embrace of unproven cures — contributed to the crisis.
As the death toll continued to grow in São Paulo—Brazil’s biggest city and a Covid-19 hot spot—the municipal funeral service announced Friday that it would begin digging up the bones of people who died at least three years ago, placing them in numbered bags, and temporarily storing them in large metal containers before sending the remains to several cemeteries to make space for new bodies.
Reporting on the conditions in São Paulo Saturday, the Associated Press noted that “some health experts are worried about a new surge now that a decline in intensive care bed occupancy to about 70% prompted Mayor Bruno Covas to authorize a partial reopening of business this week. The result has been crowded public transport, long lines at malls, and widespread disregard for social distancing.”
Adenilson Costa, one of the workers who was exhuming remains in a blue protective suit at São Paulo’s Vila Formosa cemetery on Friday, told the AP that “with this opening of malls and stores we get even more worried… This isn’t over.” Costa, who knows multiple people who have died from the virus, added: “People say nothing scares gravediggers. Covid does.”
Brazil’s biggest metropolis has an unorthodox plan to free up space at its graveyards during the coronavirus pandemic: digging up the bones of people buried in the past and storing their bagged remains in large metal containers.
Drauzio Varella—a 77-year-old oncologist and broadcaster famous for his decades of public health activism—told the Guardian that “Brazil’s situation is so worrying and so unique because if you look at the path the epidemic took—from China, through Asia, and then Europe and on to the U.S., Brazil was its first encounter with a country suffering from the kind of severe social inequality ours does.”
“We are seeing this play out now in a country where 13 or 14 million people live in precarious conditions and great poverty,” said Varella, who has previously criticized Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis. “The biggest problem we are seeing across Brazil right now is the epidemic spreading through the outskirts of cities and their rundown centers where you have tenements and the homeless live.”
Although Covid-19 cases and deaths in the country have mostly been concentrated in cities, the Washington Post reported Friday that “Indigenous leaders say nearly 230 Indigenous people have already died, many in Brazil’s most isolated reaches, and they expect that number to rise.”
The Post detailed how the Kokama people in Brazil’s Alto Solimões region, where “the only hope for advanced care is a plane ride to the faraway state capital of Manaus,” are struggling to battle the virus with little help from any level of government:
The first Indigenous person in Alto Solimões to test positive for the novel coronavirus was infected by a government doctor who’d carried the disease back with him from vacation. Officials then ignored Indigenous requests that pandemic aid be delivered to them, leaving people no alternative than to leave the isolation of the forest to travel to cities and wait in lines to collect the $120 stipend. Dozens… returned to their villages coughing and feverish. The coronavirus soon ripped through the population. “The $120 of death,” people now call the aid.
But the government didn’t flood the villages with medical equipment, meal rations, coronavirus tests, and health professionals. Instead, it all but abandoned them, according to nine indigenous leaders, a review of official complaints and government officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. With little guidance on how to proceed, and less medical equipment, the communities have been left to treat their sick and dying with herbal teas, lemon syrups and other traditional medicines.
“Help from the government? We’ve received nothing, nothing, nothing,” said Sinésio Tikuna Trovão, leader of the Tikuna people. “We need oxygen. We need equipment. Our medicinal plants cure only some of the symptoms… We need more doctors to teach us. It isn’t easy. We need rapid tests.”
Officials from the Amazonas state healthcare system and the federal Special Secretary for Indigenous Health “defended their responses—and blamed other agencies for any failings” in the region, according to the Post. Indigenous peoples in others states such as Pará and Roraima have “begun complaining the government had abandoned them, too.”
The coronavirus has now reached one of its most vulnerable victims: indigenous tribes in the Amazon forest. But rather than sweep in to help populations the Brazilian state is constitutionally sworn to protect, the government is floundering.
Meanwhile, the United States, with a population of about 332 million people, remains the global leader in both confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths. As of Sunday afternoon, over 2,090,000 people in the U.S. had confirmed cases and over 115,000 people had died.
Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told “Fox News Sunday” the impacts of ongoing protests against police brutality and easing lockdown restrictions, in terms of the cases, are not yet clear.
“I think that what we have here today is, we’re not sure what’s happening. We have 22 states where we have cases increasing, eight where it’s level, and 21 states where its decreasing,” he said. “We just have to be humble and say we’re in an unsure moment right now.”