Before the glow of dawn, the people started falling in line. For miles the line of cars soon stretched — a chain of cars leading out of the city, winding into the countryside, thousands of elderly people hoping it might finally be their day.
Duque de Caxias mayor of a working-class outlying district of Rio de Janeiro, announced last week that the age of 60 and above is the criteria for anyone to be eligible to receive a coronavirus vaccine. But there was a drag. 80,000 people fit that age group — but the town had only 6,100 doses.
Thousands of individuals battled huge crowds, waited for hours for their turn, and exposed themselves to infection, only to return home, frustrated and unvaccinated — another public health failure during a Brazilian tragedy riddled with them.
“Because of this criminal mass gathering today, I COULDN’T GET MY MOTHER VACCINATED,” one resident vented on Facebook. “I don’t know what to do.”
Coronavirus cases are falling around the world, But Brazil’s outbreak is worse than ever.
Brazil which is the second most hit country by coronavirus deaths to suffered after the United States, the question in Brazil is no longer how it got into this mess. The chaotic leadership of President Jair Bolsonaro leads Latin America’s largest country long ago to succumbed to denialism, disorder, apathy, hedonism, and medical quackery — and along the way buried more than 266,000 people.
The question is whether there is an international threat that will undermine the hard-won gains other countries have made because of the failure to control the virus in Brazil.
“If Brazil is not serious, then it will continue to affect all of the neighborhood there — and beyond,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, said last week. “This is not just about Brazil. It’s about the whole Latin America, and even beyond.”
First identified within the Amazon rainforest P.1 variant, Brazil has become an explosive tract for this. And has now been detected in more than twenty-four countries, including the US.
Possibly capable of re-infecting people that have recovered from the disease covid-19 and more transmissible, the variant began devastating the Amazonian city of Manaus in early January, then stormed south. The research institution Fiocruz announced late last week that “variants of concern” including P.1 became dominant in six of the eight states studied.
“This information is an atomic bomb,” said Roberto Kraenkel, a biological mathematician with the Covid-19 Brazil Observatory. “I’m surprised by the levels found. The media isn’t getting what this means.
Scientists across Brazil expressed deep pessimism for the coming weeks. The ICU occupation rate is at least 80 percent in most states, much higher in some. State-to-state transfers of patients are happening— sometimes traveling hundreds of miles — in a nationwide hunt for hospital resources.
Without ventilators, nurses have pumped infected patients’ lungs manually. Cemeteries are running out of space to put the bodies. Refrigerated containers wait for outside hospitals to take the overflow. Unable to get treatment, people all over the country are dying at home.
The unpredictable situation for both Brazil and the world. As viruses course through a population, they inevitably mutate. Most genetic changes are functionally insignificant. The coronavirus pandemic, which has infected more than 117 million people worldwide, has produced countless variants.
Uncontrolled outbreaks in communities with mounting immunity, scientists say, can give rise to more dangerous variants. It’s not a mere coincidence that one of the world’s most virulent variants emerged in Manaus, one of the world’s hardest-hit cities.
The virus wants to infect, said Denise Garrett, the vice president of applied epidemiology at the Sabin Vaccine Institute in Washington. Not unlike bacteria, it will mutate to get around obstacles and barriers. That might have happened with the P.1 variant: Preliminary research based on modeling and cell cultures has suggested it can dodge a certain amount of immunity in people who have recovered from a previous infection.
“Brazil makes me extremely worried,” Garrett said. “The country that doesn’t control its outbreak is a risk for other countries in that it’s a breeding site for new variants.”
Health analysts say the best way to ensure that doesn’t happen would be to control the outbreak with more restrictive measures. Then a rapid mass vaccination campaign. The United Kingdom followed this path. Israel vaccinated many residents with restrictive measures in place.
But in Brazil, all of that appears unlikely. Little National coordination is a problem The vaccine rollout has been bogged down in delays, vaccine shortages, and political infighting. It has left the country in disarray: Every city, every state, every Brazilian has taken their own direction. As things stand now, few scientists think the country will be able to stop the carnage.
“We are in big trouble,” said Margareth Dalcolmo, a lead scientist at Fiocruz.
In Brazil, a country with a vast territory, diversity, and inequality the pandemic was always going to be difficult to control. But given its built-in advantages — a younger population, warmer climate, national vaccination programs, universal health care — there was a reason at first to believe it could fare better than others.
The fact that it hasn’t, and that conditions now are worse than ever, is a public health riddle that analysts say can be understood only through the lens of politics.
Bolsonaro has set himself apart from virtually every world leader from the beginning, In his drive to play down the disease’s risks, his aversion to basic health measures, his skepticism of vaccines, and his promotion of miracle cures.
As vaccine doses ran out across the country, and the federal government repeatedly scaled back how many it was expecting to import, Bolsonaro announced he was dispatching a delegation of top officials to Israel to investigate an untested nasal spray. “It even seems to be a miraculous product,” Bolsonaro declared last week.
Local officials announced emergency restrictions when daily deaths hit a record high and the health system got cold feet. He criticized the restrictions on commercial activity.
“Stop with the fussing and whining,” he told an audience in Goiás state. “For how much longer will people all be crying? For how much longer will people stay at home and close everything? No one can take it anymore.”
30 percent of Brazilians support Bolsonaro. President’s opinions influence almost every pandemic decision. Some doctors prescribe medications touted by Bolsonaro despite scant scientific proof. Businessmen are getting calls from the local leaders to close their business. The mayor of Duque de Caxias, a fierce supporter of Bolsonaro, waded through crowds of constituents waiting in vain for a vaccine—hugging people, mask dangling beneath his chin.
“Bolsonaro’s words are shocking and anti-scientific,” said Bernardo Mello Franco, a columnist at the newspaper O Globo. “But they are influencing a significant percentage of people in Brazil. They are sabotaging health measures, motivating people not to obey them, calling people who stay home a bunch of cowards.”
President’s word has further polarized a divided country, leaving millions of Brazilians confused and insecure.
Many have had trouble reconciling the news of hospital failures and deaths with the scenes of indifference playing out in clandestine parties, packed bars, and overflowing beaches. Even when Carnival was canceled across much of the country, some revelers found a way to attend mass parties.
“I expected things would be difficult in Brazil during the pandemic,” Drauzio Varella, a famed Brazilian doctor, wrote in the magazine Época. “But I never imagined we’d be living in such a savage fight, with parties, mass gatherings, and the dissemination of the virus by people who don’t seem to care about the lives of their own family members.”