Brazil set to pass 300,000 deaths as Bolsonaro pledges more COVID-19 coordination

Outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Sao Paulo
An aerial view shows gravediggers wearing protective suits carrying a coffin during burial of a person who died from the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Vila Formosa cemetery, in Sao Paulo, Brazil, March 23, 2021. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Amanda Perobelli

March 24, 2021

By Pedro Fonseca

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Brazil is set to pass 300,000 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, as President Jair Bolsonaro faces growing pressure to take the snowballing outbreak more seriously, slow its spread and ramp up the country’s vaccination drive.

Latin America’s biggest country, already home to the world’s second-highest coronavirus death toll after the United States, has become the global epicenter of COVID-19 deaths, with one in four global fatalities currently a Brazilian.

The outbreak is reaching its worst ever stage in the country, fanned by a patchy vaccine rollout, an infectious new variant and a lack of nationwide public health restrictions.

“The outlook for the coming weeks will be very difficult,” former Health Minister Nelson Teich, who left the ministry after clashing with the president, told Reuters. “Our vaccination program is slow.”

The 300,000-death milestone comes one day after the country recorded a record daily death toll of 3,251 fatalities and Bolsonaro gave a televised address in which he defended his handling of the pandemic – and was jeered by pot-banging protests across the continent-sized country.

Bolsonaro has won international notoriety for his efforts to block lockdown measures, sow doubts over vaccines and push unproven cures like hydroxychloroquine.

The worsening health crisis and the return of his political nemesis, former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, whose corruption convictions have recently been annulled, allowing him to run in next year’s election, appear to have forced Bolsonaro to start taking the pandemic more seriously.

On Wednesday, he said the government will seek more coordination with state governors, with weekly meetings to discuss coronavirus-fighting measures in a newly launched committee.

Separately, São Paulo state Health Secretary Jean Gorinchteyn accused the health ministry of “bureaucratizing” the process of registering COVID-19 deaths by requiring identity documents that served to undercount the dead. He said the requirement was not communicated to states and municipalities in advance.

Last year, the health ministry came under fire for stopping the publication of COVID-19 data on its website, before the decision was ordered overturned by the supreme court.

Teich said he thought the situation in Brazil could still “get much worse” if the transmission of the disease is not controlled nationally by measures such as testing, case screening, isolation of infected people, quarantines and payment of financial aid for people to be able to stay at home.

“The disease is now dictating its own evolution, because we are not able to control it,” he said. “It is a difficult situation.”

(Additional reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu, in Brasilia, writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Alistair Bell and Sonya Hepinstall)