Brazilians Take to the Streets to Protest Half a Million Deaths from Covid

Protesters took to the streets across Brazil on Saturday to demand President Jair Bolsonaro’s resignation over his response to the pandemic.

The Brazilian government has come under increasing pressure for its Covid-19 policies, with the country experiencing one of the world’s worst outbreaks.

The protests also took place as Brazil logged more than 500,000 coronavirus deaths, the second-highest global death toll after the United States.

What Happened at the Protests?

Thousands of people protested in the capital, Brasília, as well as 43 other cities. Demonstrators chanted and beat drums, demanding more economic support and vaccines.

“We are protesting against the genocidal Bolsonaro government that did not buy vaccines and has done nothing to take care of its people in the last year,” Aline Rabelo, a 36-year-old protesting in Brasília, told Reuters news agency.

While thousands turned out across the country for the demonstrations, attendance appeared to be lower than the mass protests held at the end of May.

How Has Bolsonaro Responded to the Crisis?

Bolsonaro has been widely criticized for not taking up early offers to buy coronavirus vaccines. To date, only 11% of Brazil’s population is fully vaccinated while 29% have received a first dose, according to the Health Ministry.

The Brazilian president — who fell ill with the coronavirus in July last year — has also downplayed the severity of the pandemic from the start and opposed lockdown measures on economic grounds.

Most recently, he voiced doubt over the ability of coronavirus vaccines to combat the pandemic.

A special parliamentary committee is currently investigating the Bolsonaro administration’s management of the pandemic.

Half a Million Deaths

The country, which never had the pandemic under control, has hit the tragic milestone as the virus continues to rage and President Jair Bolsonaro refuses to follow scientific recommendations.

Brazil hit the tragic milestone of half a million Covid deaths on Saturday when it added 2,495 fatalities to its count.

The country has the second highest pandemic death toll in the world, second only to the United States, with its 600,000 deaths — though the US population is also 55% larger.

And unlike Americans, whose death and infection numbers have plummeted after a major vaccination campaign, Brazilians are now going through their second highest level of daily cases and deaths — only the peak in March and April was higher. In most states, case numbers are remaining stable or increasing.

The infection rate has been accelerating since early May after governors and mayors relaxed social distancing measures, a move that experts now blame for the current spike.

Brazil’s pandemic situation is currently “extremely delicate,” according to epidemiologist Carolina Coutinho, who researches at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation.

It’s the highly transmissible coronavirus variants, which are more likely to infect or reinfect people, that are making the pandemic so difficult to control.

A study by the government’s Butantan Institute found that, in São Paulo state, the gamma variant (or P.1, originally found in Manaus) made up the vast majority of infections, as of May 29. The alpha variant from the UK and the beta variant from South Africa each represented less than 5% of cases.

The delta variant has not been identified in Brazil yet. But on a national level, the country is ill-equipped to sequence genomes and identify new variants, said Coutinho.

An Anti-science President

As a backdrop to the health emergency, Brazilians have also been following a Senate commission that has been investigating the government’s handling of the Covid crisis since early May. The commission has invited several ministers and government aides to testify as well as provide information, which the press has been covering since last year.

It has revealed that President Jair Bolsonaro prevented his health ministers from following scientific recommendations, promoted drugs that were proven to be ineffective against Covid-19, feuded with governors and mayors that defended social isolation measures and refused several vaccine offers.

In mid-2020, for example, the Health Ministry rejected Pfizer’s offer of 70 million vaccine doses as well as Butantan Institute’s offer of 60 million doses.

As the pandemic worsened early this year, Bolsonaro struck new deals to buy vaccines and is now asking for the doses that he rejected in 2020 to be delivered more quickly. In early June, he promised that every Brazilian who wants to get vaccinated will be able to get jabbed by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, he has continued to criticize physical distancing measures, questioning whether face masks work and pushing conspiracy theories.

In his weekly Facebook Live post on Thursday, Bolsonaro said masks reduce the amount of oxygen you take in, which is false. Last week, he proposed that people who have been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid should stop wearing masks. Specialists have said it is “absurd” and “reckless” to stop wearing masks at this point in the pandemic.

Vaccines Are Hard to Come by

Brazil’s universal health care system SUS, one of the largest in the world, has a track record of successful vaccination campaigns.

But the government’s refusal to order vaccines last year and difficulties importing an active pharmaceutical ingredient needed for the CoronaVac and AstraZeneca vaccines have prevented the country from planning a vaccination drive that would match SUS capabilities.

Epidemiologists and data scientists have said Brazil would need to inoculate about 2 million people per day, but as the rollout remains sluggish and infection numbers remain high, the virus is currently winning the race.

Since April, Brazil has administered between 599,000 and 730,000 vaccine doses per day. Only on Thursday did the country surpass its 2-million dose goal, vaccinating 2.2 million people.

Brazil has fully vaccinated a little over 11% of its 211 million population, compared to around 45% in the US and 30% in Germany; experts estimate that 80% is needed to reach herd immunity. Until then, countries will have to keep up measures like continuous testing, wearing face masks and enforcing restrictions on crowds.

Underreporting Hides a Greater Tragedy

Brazil actually exceeded 500,000 deaths some months ago, according to biologist Marcelo Bragatte, one of the coordinators of the Covid-19 Analysis Network in the Federal University of Rio Grande.

The country probably has around 600,000 Covid deaths already, but has been underreporting them, he said.

Bragatte’s projection takes into account excess deaths due to severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) since the beginning of the pandemic, comparing the numbers with data from the last years.

“There are many cases in which the person dies that it is not confirmed that it was Covid, and they are registered as a SARS case,” said Bragatte.

This estimate would put Brazil on the same level as the US, which currently has the highest pandemic death toll.

Bragatte also projects that Brazil will continue to hit high infection and death numbers if the vaccine rollout doesn’t speed up. The numbers will only improve if Brazilians stick to recommended protocols like wearing a mask, physical distancing and avoiding meeting people indoors, he said.

“Since the government isn’t implementing the health measures, the responsibility falls on each citizen to do what they can,” he said.

The problem is that it’s not only the spread of the virus that won’t slow down.

“The misinformation in this country is not going away. It’s at a plateau. And because of that, people’s actions aren’t improving,” said Bragatte.



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It seems the future never arrives in Brazil What Lies Ahead in Brazil? Brazil Has No Exemplary Past or Present. But What Lies Ahead for the Country? Europeans, US, developed country, developing country. Bolsonaro, future B. Michael Rubin For years, experts have debated what separates a developing country from a developed one. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of a country is one simple way to measure its economic development. Another way to measure a country's progress is the extent of public education, e.g. how many citizens complete high school. A country's health may be measured by the effectiveness of its healthcare system, for example, life expectancy and infant mortality. With these measurement tools, it's easier to gauge the difference between a country like Brazil and one like the U.S. What's not easy to gauge is how these two countries developed so differently when they were both "discovered" at the same time. In 1492 and 1500 respectively, the U.S. and Brazil fell under the spell of white Europeans for the first time. While the British and Portuguese had the same modus operandi, namely, to exploit their discoveries for whatever they had to offer, not to mention extinguishing the native Americans already living there if they got in the way, the end result turned out significantly different in the U.S. than in Brazil. There are several theories on how/why the U.S. developed at a faster pace than Brazil. The theories originate via contrasting perspectives – from psychology to economics to geography. One of the most popular theories suggests the divergence between the two countries is linked to politics, i.e. the U.S. established a democratic government in 1776, while Brazil's democracy it could be said began only in earnest in the 1980s. This theory states that the Portuguese monarchy, as well as the 19th and 20th century oligarchies that followed it, had no motivation to invest in industrial development or education of the masses. Rather, Brazil was prized for its cheap and plentiful labor to mine the rich soil of its vast land. There is another theory based on collective psychology that says the first U.S. colonizers from England were workaholic Puritans, who avoided dancing and music in place of work and religious devotion. They labored six days a week then spent all of Sunday in church. Meanwhile, the white settlers in Brazil were unambitious criminals who had been freed from prison in Portugal in exchange for settling in Brazil. The Marxist interpretation of why Brazil lags behind the U.S. was best summarized by Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan writer, in 1970. Galeano said five hundred years ago the U.S. had the good fortune of bad fortune. What he meant was the natural riches of Brazil – gold, silver, and diamonds – made it ripe for exploitation by western Europe. Whereas in the U.S., lacking such riches, the thirteen colonies were economically insignificant to the British. Instead, U.S. industrialization had official encouragement from England, resulting in early diversification of its exports and rapid development of manufacturing. II Leaving this debate to the historians, let us turn our focus to the future. According to global projections by several economic strategists, what lies ahead for Brazil, the U.S., and the rest of the world is startling. Projections forecast that based on GDP growth, in 2050 the world's largest economy will be China, not the U.S. In third place will be India, and in fourth – Brazil. With the ascendency of three-fourths of the BRIC countries over the next decades, it will be important to reevaluate the terms developed and developing. In thirty years, it may no longer be necessary to accept the label characterized by Nelson Rodrigues's famous phrase "complexo de vira-lata," for Brazil's national inferiority complex. For Brazilians, this future scenario presents glistening hope. A country with stronger economic power would mean the government has greater wealth to expend on infrastructure, crime control, education, healthcare, etc. What many Brazilians are not cognizant of are the pitfalls of economic prosperity. While Brazilians today may be envious of their wealthier northern neighbors, there are some aspects of a developed country's profile that are not worth envying. For example, the U.S. today far exceeds Brazil in the number of suicides, prescription drug overdoses, and mass shootings. GDP growth and economic projections depend on multiple variables, chief among them the global economic situation and worldwide political stability. A war in the Middle East, for example, can affect oil production and have global ramifications. Political stability within a country is also essential to its economic health. Elected presidents play a crucial role in a country's progress, especially as presidents may differ radically in their worldview. The political paths of the U.S. and Brazil are parallel today. In both countries, we've seen a left-wing regime (Obama/PT) followed by a far-right populist one (Trump/Bolsonaro), surprising many outside observers, and in the U.S. contradicting every political pollster, all of whom predicted a Trump loss to Hillary Clinton in 2016. In Brazil, although Bolsonaro was elected by a clear majority, his triumph has created a powerful emotional polarization in the country similar to what is happening in the U.S. Families, friends, and colleagues have split in a love/hate relationship toward the current presidents in the U.S. and Brazil, leaving broken friendships and family ties. Both presidents face enormous challenges to keep their campaign promises. In Brazil, a sluggish economy just recovering from a recession shows no signs of robust GDP growth for at least the next two years. High unemployment continues to devastate the consumer confidence index in Brazil, and Bolsonaro is suffering under his campaign boasts that his Economy Minister, Paulo Guedes, has all the answers to fix Brazil's slump. Additionally, there is no end to the destruction caused by corruption in Brazil. Some experts believe corruption to be the main reason why Brazil has one of the world's largest wealth inequality gaps. Political corruption robs government coffers of desperately needed funds for education and infrastructure, in addition to creating an atmosphere that encourages everyday citizens to underreport income and engage in the shadow economy, thereby sidestepping tax collectors and regulators. "Why should I be honest about reporting my income when nobody else is? The politicians are only going to steal the tax money anyway," one Brazilian doctor told me. While Bolsonaro has promised a housecleaning of corrupt officials, this is a cry Brazilians have heard from every previous administration. In only the first half-year of his presidency, he has made several missteps, such as nominating one of his sons to be the new ambassador to the U.S., despite the congressman's lack of diplomatic credentials. A June poll found that 51 percent of Brazilians now lack confidence in Bolsonaro's leadership. Just this week, Brazil issued regulations that open a fast-track to deport foreigners who are dangerous or have violated the constitution. The rules published on July 26 by Justice Minister Sérgio Moro define a dangerous person as anyone associated with terrorism or organized crime, in addition to football fans with a violent history. Journalists noted that this new regulation had coincidental timing for an American journalist who has come under fire from Moro for publishing private communications of Moro's. Nevertheless, despite overselling his leadership skills, Bolsonaro has made some economic progress. With the help of congressional leader Rodrigo Maia, a bill is moving forward in congress for the restructuring of Brazil's generous pension system. Most Brazilians recognize the long-term value of such a change, which can save the government billions of dollars over the next decade. At merely the possibility of pension reform, outside investors have responded positively, and the São Paulo stock exchange has performed brilliantly, reaching an all-time high earlier this month. In efforts to boost the economy, Bolsonaro and Paulo Guedes have taken the short-term approach advocated by the Chicago school of economics championed by Milton Friedman, who claimed the key to boosting a slugging economy was to cut government spending. Unfortunately many economists, such as Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman, disagree with this approach. They believe the most effective way to revive a slow economy is exactly the opposite, to spend more money not less. They say the government should be investing money in education and infrastructure projects, which can help put people back to work. Bolsonaro/Guedes have also talked about reducing business bureaucracy and revising the absurdly complex Brazilian tax system, which inhibits foreign and domestic business investment. It remains to be seen whether Bolsonaro has the political acumen to tackle this Godzilla-sized issue. Should Bolsonaro find a way to reform the tax system, the pension system, and curb the most egregious villains of political bribery and kickbacks – a tall order – his efforts could indeed show strong economic results in time for the next election in 2022. Meanwhile, some prominent leaders have already lost faith in Bolsonaro's efforts. The veteran of political/economic affairs, Joaquim Levy, has parted company with the president after being appointed head of the government's powerful development bank, BNDES. Levy and Bolsonaro butted heads over an appointment Levy made of a former employee of Lula's. When neither man refused to back down, Levy resigned his position at BNDES. Many observers believe Bolsonaro's biggest misstep has been his short-term approach to fixing the economy by loosening the laws protecting the Amazon rainforest. He and Guedes believe that by opening up more of the Amazon to logging, mining, and farming, we will see immediate economic stimulation. On July 28, the lead article of The New York Times detailed the vastly increased deforestation in the Amazon taking place under Bolsonaro's leadership. Environmental experts argue that the economic benefits of increased logging and mining in the Amazon are microscopic compared to the long-term damage to the environment. After pressure from European leaders at the recent G-20 meeting to do more to protect the world's largest rainforest, Bolsonaro echoed a patriotic response demanding that no one has the right to an opinion about the Amazon except Brazilians. In retaliation to worldwide criticism, Bolsonaro threatened to follow Trump's example and pull out of the Paris climate accord; however, Bolsonaro was persuaded by cooler heads to retract his threat. To prove who was in control of Brazil's Amazon region, he appointed a federal police officer with strong ties to agribusiness as head of FUNAI, the country's indigenous agency. In a further insult to the world's environmental leaders, not to mention common sense, Paulo Guedes held a news conference on July 25 in Manaus, the largest city in the rainforest, where he declared that since the Amazon forest is known for being the "lungs" of the world, Brazil should charge other countries for all the oxygen the forest produces. Bolsonaro/Guedes also have promised to finish paving BR-319, a controversial highway that cuts through the Amazon forest, linking Manaus to the state of Rondônia and the rest of the country. Inaugurated in 1976, BR-319 was abandoned by federal governments in the 1980s and again in the 1990s as far too costly and risky. Environmentalists believe the highway's completion will seal a death knoll on many indigenous populations by vastly facilitating the growth of the logging and mining industries. Several dozen heavily armed miners dressed in military fatigues invaded a Wajãpi village recently in the state of Amapá near the border of French Guiana and fatally stabbed one of the community's leaders. While Brazil's environmental protection policies are desperately lacking these days, not all the news here was bad. On the opening day of the 2019 Pan America Games in Lima, Peru, Brazilian Luisa Baptista, swam, biked, and ran her way to the gold medal in the women's triathlon. The silver medal went to Vittoria Lopes, another Brazilian. B. Michael Rubin is an American writer living in Brazil.

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