Brazil is bracing for a third wave of Covid-19 as winter approaches amid a slow vaccine rollout and Jair Bolsonaro is unwilling to impose lockdowns.
Just over a fifth of Brazilians have received their first dose, while 11 percent have been fully vaccinated. This compares with 60 percent of Britons with a first dose and 41 percent with a double shot.
The sprawling country of 212 million people has largely returned to normal as it records about 1,600 daily deaths on average, about half the number from its devastating April peak, but experts say warning lights are flashing again.
Epidemiologists blame Bolsonaro for fostering a complacent attitude, telling Brazilians in March to stop “whining and crying” about Covid, and pushing ahead with plans to host the Copa America football tournament next month.
“Brazil has taken an unprecedented health catastrophe and turned it into something normal. The majority of people are acting as if there is no pandemic,” said infectious disease specialist Jose David Urbaez.
“Therefore, predictions are for a very intense third wave,” he added.
A health worker in PPE stands with patients in an intensive care unit in Rio de Janeiro
A protester holds a sign criticizing Bolsonaro over plans to host the Copa America football tournament in Brasilia on Sunday. The competition kicks off on July 10 – just as experts believe the country may experience a third wave of Covid-19
Meanwhile, high-risk virus variants — including the Brazilian and Indian variants — threaten to accelerate the spread of the disease.
Covid-19 has already claimed more than 470,000 lives in Brazil, second only to the United States.
The death toll per capita in the South American country – more than 220 per 100,000 inhabitants – is one of the highest in the world.
Some experts say a new wave in Brazil shouldn’t even be called a “third wave,” as the first and second never really subsided.
Whatever you call it, it threatens to hit just as Brazil hosts the Copa America, the South American football championships, which Bolsonaro welcomed after organizers pulled the plug on the original host country Argentina at the last minute due to their own wave of COVID-19.
A woman holds a banner accusing Bolsonaro of ‘genocide’
The 10-nation tournament starts on Sunday and lasts until July 10.
The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, which is scheduled to host eight matches, including the final, has already said his city may be canceling.
Bolsonaro faces mounting criticism and a Senate investigation over his controversial treatment of Covid-19, including his refusal of several vaccine offers.
He promised last week that all Brazilians would be vaccinated by the end of the year, but experts say that will be difficult.
His announcement, made in a nationally televised speech, was met in many Brazilian cities by a chorus of thumping pots and pans – a traditional sign of protest.
Bolsonaro maintains that his refusal to impose lockdown measures is responsible for Brazil’s stronger-than-expected economic growth of 1.2 percent in the first quarter of the year.
However, experts warn that the future of the pandemic recovery in Latin America’s largest economy will depend on how well it contains Covid-19.
People march in a protest against the government’s response in the fight against COVID-19 and demand the impeachment of President Jair Bolsonaro, in Rio de Janeiro on May 29
Last year, the Brazilian economy shrank by a record 4.1 percent.
“If the speed of vaccination is less than the negative impact of easing social distancing measures, the third wave could hit Brazil hard,” said epidemiologist Mauro Sanchez of the University of Brasilia.
One experiment has demonstrated the power of mass vaccination. In the city of Serrana, in the state of Sao Paulo, public health officials vaccinated 95 percent of the adult population in a study on the effects of full immunization.
In the southeastern city, with a population of 45,000, the number of deaths from Covid-19 fell by 95 percent and the number of hospitalizations by 86 percent.
“We have brought the pandemic in Serrana under control. We can do the same across Brazil,” said Sao Paulo governor Joao Doria, a fierce Bolsonaro critic and leader in the campaign to vaccinate all Brazilians.