Brazil sees highest COVID-19 death tolls of the pandemic, economists call for ’emergency lockdown’
RIO DE JANEIRO – Hundreds of Brazilian economists, including former finance ministers and central bank presidents, urged the Brazilian government in an open letter this week to speed up vaccination and adopt tougher restrictions to stop the rampant spread of COVID-19.
The signatories of the letter decried the “devastating” economic and social situation in Latin America’s largest nation. They also attempted to debunk President Jair Bolsonaro’s assertion that lockdowns and restrictions would inflict greater hardship on the population than the disease.
“This recession, as well as its harmful social consequences, was caused by the pandemic and will not be overcome until the pandemic is controlled through competent action from the federal government,” the letter read. “It is urgent that the different levels of government prepare to implement an emergency lockdown.”
The nation had an average of 2,235 deaths a day last week – the highest since the beginning of the pandemic. So far, Brazil has had more than 12 million cases and nearly 300,000 people have died, the second largest COVID-19 death toll in the world after the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Brazil’s gross domestic product contracted 4.1% in 2020, the biggest annual recession in decades. The economists said the fall in activity alone cost Brazil a loss in tax collection of 6.9%, approximately 58 billion reais ($10.5 billion).
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has fought against restrictions on the economy adopted by state governors and mayors. Just last week, the president sought to lift restrictions imposed in the Federal District, Bahia and Rio Grande do Sul via the Supreme Court, online news site G1 reported.
Brazil Economy Minister Paulo Guedes said Monday that mass vaccination had to be accelerated “to ensure a safe return to work”, especially for the most vulnerable.
Doctors had to choose who got oxygen
Brazil’s vast size and deficient infrastructure make getting coronavirus vaccines to far-flung communities of Indigenous peoples and descendants of enslaved people a particularly daunting endeavor.
Manaus — a city in the Amazon — suffered a devastating second wave of COVID-19 cases in January, driven by a more contagious strain of the virus. Hospitals lacked oxygen for weeks and doctors had to choose which intensive care patients to put on ventilators.
So far, 71% of about 15,000 Indigenous people in the Manaus region have received their first shots, and 52% had their second jabs this week, said Januário Carneiro, coordinator of the Manaus region’s Indigenous health care unit.
Members of the remote Baré group in Amazonas state received their vaccine jabs Wednesday after health workers travelled more than two hours from the state capital of Manaus up the Cuieiras River to the village of Nova Esperança (New Hope). Its chief, José Prancácio, said the whole village was infected with the coronavirus after people traveling to Manaus for food brought the virus home.
Vaccine challenges: Rough travels, keeping doses cold in a tropical region
Some villagers initially had rejected the shots. Carneiro has spent hours convincing Indigenous people the vaccines are safe, and says he has been successful.
After Reinaldo de Souza Santos, 37, received his shot, he held up his vaccine card to display stickers proving he had gotten both his shots.
“My people are now calm and very happy about this vaccine,” Prancácio said. “Until there’s a vaccine, a lot of people die. But today, thank God, we’re 100% satisfied.”
However, nurse Rosemeire Bezerra’s biggest challenge in the current vaccination drive is keeping vaccine doses below 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit) in an isolated, tropical region. It’s especially sweltering in the Valley of Souls (Vão de Almas, in Portuguese) where she was headed this week.
On Monday, Bezerra protected plastic foam coolers with cardboard shells and filled them with ice. She intended to vaccinate 190 families within four days, before that ice melted. She set off with her team and three others, including an experienced driver familiar with the remote region.
Houses in the Valley of Souls are far apart, and chewed-up dirt roads make for a jolting journey that complicates keeping a cooler balanced on laps. The many river crossings test the four-wheel-drive vehicles, too.
Access is so poor that Bezerra and her staffers often vaccinate people they encounter on the roadside or tending to crops in their fields, as they might not have another chance. Some areas are reached only by foot, and they have to carry in their own food and water.
“It is a very poor community, with some places that can only be reached by special pick-up trucks,” Bezerra said. “Our team didn’t spare any effort. We needed to give them some hope.”