Brazil Tops 2 Million Covid Cases With Virus Ravaging Poor Towns

Brazil surpassed 2 million coronavirus cases as the pandemic entrenches itself in poorer and more remote regions, wreaking havoc on Latin America’s largest economy.

On Thursday, the country recorded 45,403 cases of Covid-19 in a 24-hour period, pushing the total number of infections to 2,012,151. The health ministry also reported 1,322 fatalities, lifting the overall death toll to 76,688. In both counts, Brazil trails only the U.S. globally.

Brazil has now added a million cases in under a month amid a rapidly shifting domestic outbreak. While in places like Sao Paulo the numbers have stabilized — Governor Joao Doria said recently that the nation’s richest state recorded its third straight weekly drop in virus-related deaths — the disease is spreading fast elsewhere. The Southern state of Santa Catarina has seen cases more than triple in the past month. The Northeast region counts nearly as many cases as the Southeast, which has been the pandemic’s epicenter from the start.

“It took more than three months to Brazil reach 1 million cases and, in one month, we doubled that,” said Domingos Alves, the coordinator of the Health Intelligence Department at the University of Sao Paulo. “This shows the seriousness of the scenario we are still in.”

66,273 in U.S.Most new cases today

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The figures follow a World Health Organization warning that Brazil’s outbreak may not hit peak until August. Health ministry officials said on July 8 that more than 96% of municipalities had confirmed cases, adding that the country is still far from reducing its spread.

Brazil has registered over 260,000 infections in each of the past two weeks, the highest tallies since the virus was first reported locally in late February. Deaths have hovered above 7,000 a week for about a month.

Uneven Response

President Jair Bolsonaro, who last week was diagnosed with the virus himself, has repeatedly minimized the seriousness of the disease. That position has pitted him against local officials over responses including lockdowns and the use of face masks.

Read more: The Pandemic’s Worst-Case Scenario Is Unfolding in Brazil

With no guidance from the federal government, states implemented anti-virus measures as they saw fit, with policies that varied and often contradicted each other. The mishmash response means the pandemic is behaving differently across the country of 210 million people, making it harder to pinpoint when it will start to recede.

Complicating matters further, the government has lost two health ministers during the crisis. The first was fired in April after demanding more aggressive social-distancing measures and criticizing the use of unproven treatments; the second quit after less than a month on the job.

An active-duty military general with no health-care experience is now filling the post temporarily. On his watch, the government expanded production and use of hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial medication that Bolsonaro has touted throughout the crisis.

On Tuesday, local newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper reported Bolsonaro is looking for a replacement for the post.

The Health Ministry said in an e-mailed response to questions that Brazil has over 1.1 million people who have recovered from the disease and that although the virus is present in almost all municipalities, about 70% of those have 100 cases or less. The government “has made a continued effort” since the start of the pandemic to ensure health care needs are met, the ministry said, adding that it has provided extra financing, personnel, medical equipment and medication to the public health care system known as SUS, as well as sent some 55 billion reais ($10 billion) to states and cities to help fight the pandemic.

The presidency declined to comment for this story.

Northeast Advance

A study from the University of Pelotas released in early July showed about 5% of the population in the Northeast has been exposed to the disease. That’s a jump from the 0.8% seen in mid-May, and trails only the North, where 8% of the people surveyed have antibodies. The study also found a higher rate of antibodies in the poorest segments of the population -- who often live in conditions that make social distancing impossible, and can’t afford to not work.

Meanwhile, the Northeast has just 1.5 ICU beds per 10,000 inhabitants, versus 2.7 in the Southeast, according to medical association Amib.

The numbers, which are from a March report and consider both public and private hospitals, are even worse in the North, which has only 0.9 ICU beds per 10,000. Early in the pandemic, health systems in cities in that region, like Manaus and Belem, were overwhelmed by the disease.

In recent weeks, cases have also advanced in the countryside of states like Sao Paulo and the South and Central-West regions, which were largely spared early on and have begun to reopen their economies. Cities in some of those locations have started to implement lockdowns as cases jump, just as the restrictions elsewhere in the country are lifted -- in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, malls, bars and restaurants are among businesses that have been allowed to reopen in recent weeks.

Re-Openings

The process of rolling back restrictions on commerce has been slow and fraught with challenges. As business owners who are trying to resume operations have found, fears of getting the virus will keep many customers at home even if they reopen stores.

Read More: Brazilians Are Shunning Reopened Shops as Virus Upends Economy

A modest economic rebound seen in May already lost steam in June, central bank director Fabio Kanczuk recently said, ruling out the possibility of a V-shaped recovery.

Meanwhile, a report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development forecasts Brazil’s economy can shrink by 9.1% if a second wave of Covid-19 hits. The central bank is estimating a 6.4% drop this year in an outlook that doesn’t contemplate a second wave.

Bolsonaro’s administration is trying to support the reopening with a plan to test 20% of the population, an area where Brazil has lagged other nations. As of June 30, the country had carried out 1.4 million so-called PCR tests. The University of Pelotas study estimates there are about six cases that go underreported for every confirmed infection.

With no clear end in sight, officials in Rio de Janeiro and Bahia have begun considering postponing Carnival festivities scheduled for February 2021. Rio de Janeiro city Mayor Marcelo Crivella has said beaches will likely remain closed for the rest of the year unless a vaccine comes -- although many people don’t abide by the rules and pack the seaside on sunny weekends.

“For the past month, the Health Ministry is recording some 37,000 cases and 1,000 deaths daily,” Alves said. “That does not mean in any way that the pandemic is under control in Brazil.”

— With assistance by Rachel Gamarski

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