When Johnathan Rodrigues had a headache and lost his sense of taste and smell, he felt sure it was not Covid-19, having just recovered from his illness less than six months ago.
“Now I am reinfected,” said a 26-year-old resident in the Amazon city of Porto Velho. “I couldn’t believe it when the results came out. I thought I was immune. “
A grim feeling of déjà vu is spreading across Latin America’s largest country, which is in the throes of a second attack of the coronavirus even more intense than the first.
Daily deaths in Brazil hit a record 1,910 last week, as infections spike and intensive care wards in many states hit their breaking point. The country’s average seven days of reported death, compiled from state health department data, about 30 percent higher than the peak in July during the first wave.
Scientists and health care professionals believe that one of the factors behind the re-emerging outbreak is the P.1 strain which is more contagious, which, according to a preprint study released last week, may be able to circumvent the natural immunity developed by people who are already infected with the virus.
More than 260,000 people have lost their lives to Covid-19 in Brazil, the second highest in the world only behind the US. On a per capita basis, the country ranks 22nd, behind many European countries.
“After all that we went through in the first wave, with optimism from the start of vaccination, it looks like we are starting to emerge from the pandemic,” said José Eduardo Levi, research coordinator at medical diagnostics company Dasa and a researcher at the University of São Paulo.
“Now we are seeing a great increase, with the largest number from the start.”
Experts also pointed to a lack of preventive measures and problems with immunization rollouts, which critics see as being mismanaged by President Jair Bolsonaro’s government, to be the cause of the worsening situation.
Throughout the pandemic, right-wing populist presidents have been experiencing it reduce virus severity, vowing not to stab himself after recovering from Covid-19 and questioning the use of masks.
“Quite fussy and whining. How much longer will the crying last? Bolsonaro said at an event on Thursday. “How much longer are you going to stay home and shut everything down? No one can hold it anymore. We regret the death, again, but we need a solution.”
Luiz Henrique Mandetta – former health minister who was fired by Bolsonaro last year after they publicly clashed over how to deal with the pandemic – saying the current difficulties were the result of “wrong political decisions”.
“The health ministry has been dissolved and a member of the military” – General Eduardo Pazuello, the incumbent health minister – “was appointed who did not have the credibility to be able to make the population understand its own role in reducing transmission,” he added.
Global focus is now returning to Brazil over concerns over the P.1 lineage of Sars-Cov-2 – linked to an explosion of cases in the rainforest city of Manaus and now detected in at least 25 countries – whose scientific studies have similarly found twice as contagious like some of the other strains. A separate preprint paper suggests a vaccine made in China is used in Brazil may be less effective in preventing it.
“Other countries are concerned about Brazil, because it doesn’t have a control strategy,” said Ethel Maciel, an epidemiologist and professor at the Federal University of Espírito Santo. “What’s the plan? We don’t have a plan.”
After appearing in late 2020, the mutant variant P.1 quickly became the dominant strain in the state of Amazonas, according to the researchers. This coincides with a sharp rise in infections in Manaus, whose hospital system was overwhelmed earlier this year.
The episode undermined the idea that the population was coming in Brazil’s forest capital, three quarters is thought to have been infected with the coronavirus in October, may have achieved herd immunity.
While the exact national frequency of P.1 is unknown, public health experts say it has been combined with a widespread failure to observe social distancing in Brazil to spark the latest spike.
During the Christmas season, many families gather across the country, while scenes of illegal parties are filmed in cities such as Rio de Janeiro during the largely canceled Carnival period.
“The situation in Brazil is very tragic because the P. 1 variant appeared and soon the holidays came and took the moment to spread,” said Levi.
Another source of frustration is speed a national inoculation program. After a delayed start, Brazil has delivered at least one dose to 8.1 million people, or 3.8 percent of a population of 213 million, according to a local media consortium. But dwindling stocks forced some city authorities to temporarily reduce injections last month.
“The big problem is the lack of a vaccine,” said Adele Benzaken, a doctor in Manaus and medical director for global programs at the Aids Healthcare Foundation.
The government hopes to step up the campaign with new supply contracts and increase domestic production. Meanwhile, there is no indication that a leader who prioritizes keeping the economy open will change tactics and tighten restrictions.
The association of state health secretaries last week wrote an open letter calling for a curfew, while a number of authorities, including in São Paulo, the continent’s most populous city, imposed varying degrees of lockdown.
Thiago Vidal, a political analyst at consultancy Prospectiva, said there was little public desire for stricter action.
“Bolsonaro will not change,” he added. “The modus operandi is what it is. If he changes [his position], it would be an admission that he was wrong. “
With the government trying to push through a scaled-down version of the coronavirus emergency benefits that proved popular last year, Bolsonaro is counting on another boost to his ranking ahead of the presidential election in 2022, analysts say.
The Brazilian Senate voted on Thursday to support a new aid package worth R $ 44 billion ($ 7 billion). The proposal – which still has to be approved by the lower house – is expected to include four monthly cash transfers of around R $ 250 to the poorest country.
“Bolsonaro is looking for a free way to put money into the economy in the hope that it will make him successful in terms of his popularity. It worked for him in the past, ”said Matías Spektor of the Fundação Getúlio Vargas think-tank.
“As long as the money continues to flow, the strategy has a pretty good chance of working again. The problem is how long he can keep pumping the economy. ”
He added: “Brazil loses about 60,000 people to homicide every year and 70,000 die in car accidents on bad roads. There is tolerance in a country like this for death. “
Additional reporting by Carolina Pulice
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