Brazil recorded more than 4,000 Covid-related deaths for the first time in 24 hours, as a more contagious variant fuels an increase in cases.
Hospitals are overcrowded, people are dying while waiting for treatment in some cities, and the health care system is on the verge of collapse in many areas.
The country’s total death toll is now nearly 337,000, just behind the United States.
But President Jair Bolsonaro continues to oppose any lockdown measures aimed at stemming the epidemic.
He argues that the damage to the economy would be worse than the effects of the virus itself and has tried to overturn some of the restrictions imposed by local authorities in court.
Speaking to supporters outside the presidential residence on Tuesday, he criticized the quarantine measures and suggested without evidence that they were linked to obesity and depression. He did not comment on the 4,195 deaths recorded in the past 24 hours.
To date, Brazil has recorded more than 13 million cases of the coronavirus, according to the Ministry of Health. Some 66,570 people died from Covid-19 in March, more than double the previous monthly record.
“Brazil now … is a threat to the entire international community’s efforts to control the pandemic,” Dr Miguel Nicolelis, who has been following the cases in the country closely, told the BBC.
“If Brazil is not under control then the planet will not be safe, because we are brewing new variants every week … and they are going to cross borders,” he said.
What is the situation in Brazil?
In most states, patients with Covid-19 occupy more than 90% of intensive care unit beds, according to Fiocruz health institute (in Portuguese).
Several states have reported a shortage of oxygen and sedatives. But despite the critical situation, some cities and states are already easing measures restricting the movement of people.
“The point is, President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-lockdown narrative has won,” Miguel Lago, executive director of the Brazilian Institute for Health Policy Studies, which advises public health officials, told the ‘Associated Press.
“Mayors and governors are politically prohibited from strengthening social distancing policies because they know the president’s supporters, including business leaders, will sabotage them,” he said.
The far-right president – who has played down the virus, raised doubts about vaccines and championed unproven drugs as a cure – has seen his popularity drop amid fierce criticism of his handling of the crisis.
He recently changed his tone on vaccinations, pledging to make 2021 the year of vaccinations. But the country has struggled to roll out its program.
Critics say his government has been slow to negotiate supplies. Only about 8% of the population has received at least one dose, according to the Our World in Data tracker.
Epidemiologist Ethel Maciel said Brazil was in a “terrible situation,” telling AFP news agency: “At the rate we are vaccinating … the only way to slow the extremely rapid spread of the virus is a lockdown effective for at least 20 days. “
What is the Brazilian variant?
Fiocruz says it has detected 92 variants of the coronavirus in the country, including the P.1 variant, or the Brazil variant, which has become of concern because it is believed to be much more contagious.
It is believed to have emerged in Amazonas state in November 2020, spreading rapidly to the state capital Manaus, where it accounted for 73% of cases in January 2021, according to figures analyzed by Brazilian researchers.
Experts fear that the proliferation of the Brazilian variant will lead to an increase in cases for several months.
Dr Nicolelis, who until recently was the coordinator of the pandemic response team in northeast Brazil, told the BBC that the country’s response amounted to “utter calamity”.
“It is the greatest human tragedy in the history of Brazil,” he said.
“We could reach 500,000 dead on July 1, this is the latest estimate,” he said. “But the University of Washington released an estimate on Friday suggesting that if the transmission rate increases by about 10%, we could reach 600,000 deaths.”
The Brazilian variant has also been linked to a spike in infections and deaths in a number of countries in South America.