Already repelling one of the highest casualties in the pandemic, Brazil is preparing for the threat of a third wave of Covid-19, fueled by delayed vaccination and a lack of containment measures.
So far, each pandemic has consistently worsened in Brazil, averaging about 1,000 deaths a day in July 2020 in the first wave and 3,000 deaths a day in April last year in the second.
Since then, the curve has narrowed, averaging about 1,600 deaths a day in the past week, and Brazilians have largely returned to business as usual.
But as winter approaches in the southern hemisphere, experts again say warning lights are flashing, raising fears of a return to crowded hospitals, mass graves, refrigerated trucks piled up with corpses and other ominous scenes from Brazil̵
The sprawling country is slowly vaccinating its 212 million people and hastened to lift state and local measures to stay at home, epidemiologists say.
Meanwhile, risky variants of the virus – including the Gamma strain, which emerged in Brazil itself, plus the first cases of the Delta strain in India – 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 South America – more than 220 per 100,000 inhabitants – is one of the highest in the world.
But many Brazilians seem concerned about the threat of a new leap – not least by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who continues to regularly oppose expert advice on the contents of the virus.
“Brazil has embarked on an unprecedented health catastrophe and turned it into something normal. Most people are behaving as if there is no pandemic,” said infectious disease specialist Jose David Urbaes.
“That’s why the forecasts are for a very intense third jump,” he told AFP.
– Protests against exploding pots –
Some experts say a new leap in Brazil should not even be called a “third wave”, given that the first and second have never subsided.
Whatever you call it risks hitting just as Brazil hosts the Copa America, the South American football championships, which Bolsonaro welcomed after organizers pulled the link between the original hosts Argentina at the last minute because of their own Covid-19 surge.
The tournament with 10 countries starts on Sunday and will last until July 10.
The mayor of Rio de Janeiro, who is to host eight matches, including the final, has already said his city can cancel.
With about 10.8% of the population fully vaccinated, the situation in Brazil may worsen before it improves.
Bolsonaro faces growing criticism and a Senate inquiry into his controversial handling of Covid-19, including his refusal of various vaccine proposals.
Last week, he vowed that all Brazilians would be vaccinated by the end of the year, but experts say it will be difficult.
His announcement, made on a national television address, was greeted by a chorus of rattling pots and pans in many Brazilian cities, a traditional sign of protest.
Bolsonaro claims that his refusal to impose blocking measures is responsible for Brazil’s stronger-than-expected economic growth of 1.2% 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 Covid-19 contains.
Last year, Brazil’s economy shrank by a record 4.1%.
– Mass vaccination: outcome –
“If the rate of vaccination is less than the negative impact of mitigating social alienation measures, the third wave could hit Brazil hard,” said epidemiologist Mauro Sanchez of the University of Brazil.
One experiment showed the power of mass vaccination. In the city of Serrana, Sao Paulo, public health officials vaccinated 95 percent of the adult population in a study of the effects of full immunization.
Mortality from Covid-19 has dropped by 95 percent and hospitalizations by 86 percent in the southeastern city of 45,000.
“We controlled the pandemic in Serana. We can do the same in Brazil,” said Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, a fierce critic of Bolsonaro and a leader in the campaign to vaccinate all Brazilians.
jm / jhb / bgs