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As Bolsonaro Scandals Deepen, Is Brazil Descending Into Coronavirus Chaos?

A medical worker attends to a COVID-19 patient at a hospital in Duque de Caixas, Brazil, near Rio de Janeiro this month.
A medical worker attends to a COVID-19 patient at a hospital in Duque de Caixas, Brazil, near Rio de Janeiro this month.

Brazil is now the world’s fastest growing COVID-19 hotspot. Each day the country is reporting more than 10,000 new infections – and about a thousand new deaths. Brazil’s top scientists say the country isn’t even close to its pandemic peak yet. And over the weekend its health minister quit – the second to leave in a month.

WLRN’s Christine DiMattei spoke with Americas editor Tim Padgett about Brazil’s COVID-19 meltdown – and the political chaos that’s making it worse.

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Here are some excerpts from their conversation:

CHRISTINE DIMATTEI: Tim, just how badly does Brazil’s COVID-19 pandemic seem to be spreading right now – and where in the country is it worst?

TIM PADGETT: Consider about a week ago, Brazil’s number of COVID-19 cases and deaths wasn’t even in the global top 10. As of Monday, May 18, Brazil suddenly had the world’s fourth highest number of infections at about 250,000, passing Italy and Spain. It had the sixth highest number of fatalities at almost 17,000. No other country in Latin America and the Caribbean comes close.

Large cities like São Paulo have been hit hard. But some smaller and more remote places like Manaus up on the Amazon River are being ravaged. Manaus alone accounts for a tenth of Brazil’s infections and deaths. Ambulances are driving around the city looking for any place that will take critical coronavirus patients, because every hospital bed is occupied.

READ MORE: No Longer Immune? Latin America & Caribbean See Significant Rise in COVID-19 Cases

Do Brazilian public health officials know what’s caused this meltdown in the situation there?

I talked to an infectious disease expert in São Paulo. He said Brazil’s infection curve right now is where, say, Italy’s was many weeks ago – and scientists said back in late March that would probably be the case by now. Italy as you know was hit terribly by COVID-19; Brazil has one of the world’s largest Italian immigrant communities, and there was a lot of cross-Atlantic traffic between Italy and Brazil as the pandemic got underway. Brazil’s first case resulted from that travel.

Second, and most important: Brazilians simply haven’t taken social distancing and quarantine seriously enough. In fact, in the favelas, or slums, of cities like Rio de Janeiro, street gangs have had to enforce the lockdown orders that local mayors and state governors have had to issue – because Brazilians unfortunately are getting just the opposite message from their federal government.

Right. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has dismissed COVID-19 as a “media hoax.” He encourages mass public gatherings; he often goes out without a mask and shakes people’s hands. Is he being blamed in any way now for the pandemic’s escalation?

Short answer: Yes. I mean, he was out and at it again this past weekend, leading a big pro-government rally, although he was finally wearing a mask. João Doria, the governor of São Paulo, Brazil’s most populous state, is a conservative like Bolsonaro. But Doria has been so angered by the president's behavior he said recently the country is fighting two viruses: the coronavirus and the “Bolsonarovirus.” And polls show most Brazilians agree. When Bolsonaro was asked a couple weeks ago about Brazil’s spiraling COVID-19 deaths, his response was, verbatim: “So what?”

WHO'S IN CHARGE?

Bolsonaro fired his first health minister last month because he publicly criticized what he called the president’s reckless approach to pandemic. Now just a few days ago Bolsonaro’s second health minister quit for much the same reason. Who is in charge of Brazil’s pandemic response?

I wish I could answer that. But I can’t. I’d just be guessing at this point.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wearing a protective mask at a rally in Brasilia on Sunday to support his government.
Credit Andre Borges / AP
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro wearing a protective mask at a rally in Brasilia on Sunday to support his government.

At the same time, Brazil is going through another political upheaval that’s making it harder for the government to focus on fighting the pandemic. Tell us about that.

Right. A big scandal. Bolsonaro’s justice minister just resigned and he accused Bolsonaro of trying to force him to hire one of the president’s political cronies as head of the federal police in Rio de Janeiro state – where Bolsonaro’s sons are either under federal investigation or reportedly under investigation for corruption. (They deny the allegations.) A video of a recent cabinet meeting was just leaked; and in it, Bolsonaro let’s loose a storm of expletives about the federal police and state governors. As you point out, it’s all distracting Brazil from the more important effort against COVID-19.

Brazilian scientists say the country isn’t even close to seeing its peak of infections and deaths. And many say Brazil’s official coronavirus numbers are not an accurate indication of how just bad things are. How much worse might they be?

A recent study by a consortium of scientists and hospitals estimates the number of infections in Brazil to be closer to the number we’ve seen here in the U.S. And as you know, the U.S. has reported the world’s highest number of cases and deaths.

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