‘A biological Fukushima’: Brazil COVID-19 deaths on track to rival US

Rio de Janeiro: Brazil’s brutal surge in COVID-19 deaths will soon surpass the worst of a record January wave in the United States, and with hospitals at breaking point it could exceed total US deaths.

Fatalities climbed above 4000 in a day on Tuesday for the first time, taking the pandemic total to nearly 337,000, according to Health Ministry data, compared with more than 555,000 dead in the United States.

A protest against the Brazilian government’s pandemic response outside the Raul Gazzola hospital in Rio de Janeiro.Credit:Bloomberg

But with the Brazilian healthcare system struggling to treat severely ill COVID patients, two experts said the country could become the worst in the world for coronavirus deaths, despite having a population two-thirds that of the United States.

“It’s a nuclear reactor that has set off a chain reaction and is out of control. It’s a biological Fukushima,” said Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian doctor and professor at Duke University, who is closely tracking the virus.

On Tuesday, the Health Ministry reported 4195 COVID-19 deaths in the previous 24 hours, well above the country’s prior single-day record. Daily death records have been set every week since late February, as a more contagious local variant and meagre social distancing efforts fuel an uncontrolled outbreak.

The South American country contributes about one in four COVID-19 deaths per day globally, according to a Reuters analysis.

Health workers tend to a COVID-19 patient in the ICU ward at the Hospital das Clinicas in Porto Alegre, Brazil.Credit:AP

President Jair Bolsonaro has pushed back against mask-wearing and lockdowns that public health experts consider the best way to lessen virus transmission.

The country dragged its feet last year as the world raced to secure vaccines, slowing the launch of a national immunisation program.

Despite the recent surge, Brazilian officials are insistent that the country can soon return to something resembling business as usual.

“We think that probably two, three months from now Brazil could be back to business,” Economy Minister Paulo Guedes said during an online event on Tuesday (Wednesday AEDT). “Of course, probably economic activity will take a drop but it will be much, much less than the drop we suffered last year […] and much, much shorter.”

Bolsonaro has responded to growing political pressure with a dramatic shake-up of a half dozen ministries, putting loyalists in key roles ahead of what may be a tough re-election campaign next year against his political nemesis.

While the President has recently shifted his tone on immunisations, touting vaccines he had recently disdained, the far-right former army captain continues remains fully against lockdowns as damaging to the economy.

With weak measures failing to combat contagion, COVID-19 cases and deaths are accumulating faster than ever.

Sao Paulo state, Brazil’s most populous with 46 million residents, registered almost 1400 deaths in the latest count. Health officials said the figure was partly due to the Easter holiday, which delayed the count.

Local authorities nationwide argue that numbers of cases and hospitalisations are trending downward after a week of a partial shutdown.

But Miguel Lago, executive director of Brazil’s Institute for Health Policy Studies, which advises public health officials, said reopening was a mistake that he feared would bring even higher death numbers.

“The fact is the anti-lockdown narrative of President Jair Bolsonaro has won,” Lago told The Associated Press. “Mayors and governors are politically prohibited from beefing up social distancing policies because they know supporters of the President, including business leaders, will sabotage it.”

COVID-19 patients are using more than 90 per cent of beds in intensive care unit in most Brazilian states, though figures have been stable since the past week. Still, hundreds are dying as they wait for care and basic supplies such as oxygen and sedatives are running out in several states. Brazilian media reports puts the number of serious COVID patients waiting for beds at some hospitals at up to 1400.

Less than 3 per cent of Brazil’s 210 million people have received both doses of coronavirus vaccines, according to Our World in Data, an online research site.

Nicolelis and Christovam Barcellos, a researcher at Brazilian medical institute Fiocruz, are separately forecasting that Brazil could surpass the United States in both overall deaths and the record for average deaths per day.

As soon as next week, it may break the record US seven-day average for COVID-19 deaths, according to a model by the influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington. The US average for daily deaths peaked at 3285 in January.

The IHME forecast does not currently extend beyond July 1, when it projects Brazil could reach 563,000 deaths, compared with 609,000 total US fatalities expected by then.

Reuters, AP

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