Brazil on Thursday became the second country to pass 400,000 COVID-19 deaths after the United States, and experts warned the daily toll could remain high for several months due to slow vaccinations and loosening social restrictions.
A brutal surge of coronavirus infections this year has pushed hospitals around the country to the brink of their capacities and led to 100,000 deaths in just over a month.
Brazil’s COVID-19 deaths have fallen slightly from a peak of more than 4,000 in a single day in early April, prompting many local governments to ease lockdowns.
But infectious disease experts warned that this easing will keep deaths elevated for months as vaccines alone cannot be counted on to contain the virus. Two experts said they expect deaths to continue to average above 2,000 per day.
“Brazil will repeat the same mistake as last year,” said epidemiologist Pedro Hallal, who led a national study on COVID-19.
“What will Brazil do now? Go back to easing restrictions and that will stabilize us at 2,000 deaths per day, as if 2,000 deaths from a single disease in one day is normal,” he said.
India has recently surpassed Brazil in average daily deaths, although Brazil has a higher cumulative toll despite having a population one-sixth the size of India’s.
The surge in infections is being driven by the P.1 coronavirus variant discovered in Brazil that is believed to be 2.5 times more contagious than the original version.
The vaccine rollout, with only about 13% of people having received one shot to date, has not been enough to contain the spread without social restrictions, said Diego Xavier, a researcher at government health institute Fiocruz.
He also predicted more than 2,000 deaths per day would become the norm without a major acceleration in vaccinations, as has been seen in countries like the United States.
The experts blamed the death toll on the failure of government – from President Jair Bolsonaro to many state governors and mayors – to launch a strong enough response to the pandemic.
“We have reached this number of 400,000 deaths mainly because of the managerial incompetence of this government, led by the president,” said Jamal Suleiman, a doctor at the Emilio Ribas Infectology Institute.
Bolsonaro has downplayed the severity of the virus since the beginning, opposed strict lockdown measures, failed to strongly endorse masks and only recently embraced vaccines.
The vaccination campaign has faltered with the Health Ministry over the weekend saying that 30% fewer vaccines were received than expected in January to April.
Many municipalities have run out of vaccines and cannot administer second shots as planned, while others have seen long lines as many people fear supplies will not last.
Bolsonaro insists the country must get back to business as usual, arguing that the economic hardship for Brazilians is equally as bad as the pandemic itself.
The Senate this week launched a special committee investigating possible wrongdoing in the government’s pandemic response, promising to call current and former top officials in Bolsonaro’s administration to testify.