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Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis requires strict lockdown measures, experts say.  Why are some officials relaxing restrictive measures?


Sao Paulo will reopen public schools, sporting events and construction stores. Rio de Janeiro will allow bars and restaurants to operate again, revoking restrictions in place since March.

The Sao Paulo authorities justify the reopening by stressing that the occupancy rates of the state’s intensive care units have gone from the crisis level of 90.5% to 88.6%. “This measure clearly shows that the efforts made in recent weeks are starting to bear fruit,” Deputy Governor Rodrigo Garcia said at a press conference on April 9.

But the daily figures are still very grim: as of Friday alone, the state recorded more than 20,000 new cases.

Meanwhile, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, intensive care unit occupancy rates are 92% higher, but Mayor Eduardo Paes has decided to ease restrictions nonetheless. “This is an answer for anyone who thinks the restrictions are of no use in preventing parties and crowds. Our reality does not allow the lockdown,” Paes said at a press conference on Friday, adding that traders and the general population suffer economically from such measures. Still, he said, “Now is not the time to relax.”

The easing of restrictions is the opposite of what many institutions and medical specialists say Brazil needs: a national, coordinated lockdown. So far, Brazil has only fully vaccinated 2.8% of its population – just over 6 million people, in a country of 210 million people.

Currently, Brazil’s public and private health systems are under enormous pressure, with ICUs in at least 17 states overwhelmed by more than 90% occupancy. Airway medications and oxygen have been repeatedly low at times during the pandemic. On Thursday, the National Council of Municipal Health Secretariats said about a fifth of all cities in the country were at risk of running out of medical oxygen over the next ten days.

Only a lockdown can prevent April from becoming “even worse” than March – the country’s deadliest month of the pandemic to date, with 66,573 deaths recorded – according to the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz), a public biomedical research center who is currently working with vaccine maker AstraZeneca.

“Lockdowns are a bitter remedy, but they are absolutely necessary in times of crisis and health system collapse like the one the country is currently experiencing. Just that will prevent more deaths and effectively save lives,” Fiocruz scientists wrote in a recent report. .

The United Nations office in Brazil has also called on the country to impose movement restrictions, warning that the accelerating death rate and the lack of a coordinated national plan “are leading the country to disaster.”

Brazil never had a real lockdown

Since the start of the pandemic, Brazil has experienced a patchwork of local restrictions on movement or activity, but they have never really been a broad effective lockdown, neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis told CNN.

Nicolelis, a prominent Brazilian scientist, created one of the country’s first scientific committees to study the coronavirus and develop tactics to combat the disease, and advised on regional Covid-19 strategies. He and other medical experts and civil society groups are part of Brazil’s “April for Life” campaign, which calls on the federal government to impose an immediate nationwide lockdown.

“Lockdown is about restricting the movement of people – streets, roads, flights, in addition to achieving strict social isolation. This has never been largely achieved in Brazil, we have only had a few exceptions, ”said Nicolelis. “In general, we have had a few restrictive measures applied with low levels of buy-in from people.”

April for Life estimates that a strict 30-day national lockdown, with strict rules on the movement of people, could save 22,000 lives.

“If you look at the Brazilian curves in Rio de Janeiro and even in São Paulo, you see peaks and valleys. Death spikes, then they temporarily close some things and you see a little drop, but the drop is not sustainable. Finally, you are not effectively stopping the transmission of the virus, but you are creating an environment conducive to the emergence of new variants, ”said Nicolelis.

He says Brazil needs more federal leadership; accelerated vaccine deployment; and a nationwide lockdown imposed by the federal government in which only essential services are allowed and most travel is prohibited.

“The virus is a collective organism, and you can only fight it collectively. There is no point in shutting down a city if we want to leave the rest open, you need coordinated action, otherwise the virus will continue to grow back, “he says.

Yet Brazilian authorities have resisted the adoption of such measures to contain the spread of the virus. The country’s federal government, headed by President Jair Bolsonaro, has indeed shown fierce opposition to the imposition of restrictions for the sake of economy.

“The one who closed the markets and shops and made people stay at home is not me,” Bolsonaro said on Saturday, during a visit to the outskirts of Brasilia, referring disdainfully to mayors and to governors who have adopted local restrictive measures.

“I have the power to sign a document to decree a lockdown across the country, but it will not happen, and our army will not take to the streets to force people to stay at home,” the president said without mask.

His new health ministry, Marcelo Queiroga, also rejected the idea. “The order (of the president) is to avoid the lockdown,” Queiroga said on April 3.

Local locks have worked

A three-hour drive from Sao Paulo, Edinho Silva is one of the few Brazilian mayors to have gone against the grain.

He imposed a full lockdown in the town of Araquara, shutting down businesses, including supermarkets and public transport, and banning the movement of people for 10 days in February – a move that sparked death threats against him.

He took a dramatic step forward after seeing the hospitals in the agro-industrial city start to fill up. The city of 250,000 was the first in the state of Sao Paulo to see its healthcare system collapse under the weight of new Covid-19 cases, forcing it to transfer severe cases out of intensive care units crowded to other cities.

“(The lockdown) was a difficult decision that required sacrifices, especially on the part of small and medium-sized businesses, as there is no financial support for them in Brazil. But with the contamination curve that we had, I had nothing else to do, ”Silva said.

Soon after, he started receiving death threats from Bolsaro supporters, Silva told CNN. “Does anyone know where Mayor Edinho lives? I just want a (fight) with him. Then I’m going to stab him from the bottom up,” a man said on social media, according to Silva. Police are currently investigating the threats.

Despite the personal risks, Silva’s strict approach seems to have worked.

Since the 10-day lockdown ended, some restrictions have remained on the city, including a nighttime curfew from 9:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. and limited hours for bars and restaurants – and the number of cases and deaths from Ararquara to Covid-19 have steadily declined.

For three consecutive days last week, Ararquara recorded no deaths from Covid-19. It’s a small sign of hope, but one that stands out amid Brazil’s growing coronavirus crisis.

“Lockdown is not a choice, it is imposed by reality,” says Silva. “If you don’t adopt it, you’ll pile up coffins, there’s no other way.

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