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Holidays, Vaccine Issues Thwart Brazil's Attempt To Control COVID-19 Surge


In the before times, this would have been a happy scene.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Portuguese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Portuguese).

MARTIN: This is a beach in Rio de Janeiro yesterday, completely packed with people. For those battling the pandemic there, the scene looked more like a death trap. Brazil's recorded more COVID deaths than anywhere except the U.S. Scientists are warning numbers will soon soar. That's the price, they say, for partying through the new year and for having a president who undermines vaccination plans. NPR's Philip Reeves reports.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: If you spend your life tracking the coronavirus pandemic in Brazil, you're probably finding it hard to sleep these days. Miguel Nicolelis certainly is.

MIGUEL NICOLELIS: Every night I go to bed at 2:00, 3:00 in the morning with these numbers. And I'm looking at these projections. And I'm talking to myself, you know, saying, my God, these numbers are going to be dead people in a few weeks.

REEVES: Nicolelis is professor of neurobiology at Duke University in North Carolina. He's studied the spread of infectious diseases. Ten months ago, he returned to Brazil to visit his mother. Then the pandemic began.

NICOLELIS: And I have been here since then.

REEVES: Back then, there were no international flights. Nicolelis found himself trapped in his apartment in the city of Sao Paulo. He decided to get to work.

NICOLELIS: My living room has been the headquarters of a committee for 10 months now.

REEVES: Nicolelis is co-director of a COVID-19 scientific task force. It provides analysis and advice to governors in northeast Brazil. When the pandemic started, he was worried. Now he's terrified.

NICOLELIS: It's like you are on top of a hill and you're seeing a tsunami coming. And you run down to the beach, and you say it is coming. It's going to be here in 10 minutes. And people look at you, and they don't believe it, or they think you're joking. Or - but that's what I feel right now. I have seen the tsunami.

REEVES: Nicolelis says when the virus first arrived in Brazil, it took a while to spread. He says the difference between then and now is that now cases are surging across much of the country at the same time.

NICOLELIS: This is worse than the first wave - much worse. We need to get something done. Otherwise, we may not recognize this country in a year from now.

REEVES: The tsunami's already started. Manaus is a city of some 2 million people in northern Brazil. It's in the middle of the Amazon rainforest. In April, its health system collapsed. COVID victims were buried in mass graves.


REEVES: Now online videos are again appearing, showing hospitals flooded by patients.


FILIPE SHIMIZO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: There are many new cases, says Filipe Shimizo, a frontline medic in Manaus, in a recent posting.


SHIMIZO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "It's devastating not to have enough beds and equipment for people," he says. "My colleagues are worn out."

On Thursday, the number of COVID deaths logged by authorities in Brazil crossed the 200,000 mark.


PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: That evening, the president, Jair Bolsonaro, mentioned this milestone during a live broadcast on Facebook. He expresses sorrow about the deaths...


BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...But adds, "life goes on."

ROSANA RICHTMANN: I think the problem is our president.

REEVES: Dr. Rosana Richtmann is one of Brazil's leading infectious disease specialists.

RICHTMANN: It's clear for us that he doesn't believe in vaccination, in the pandemic, in nothing.

REEVES: Brazil's most populous state, Sao Paulo, has already shipped in millions of doses of the Chinese-made vaccine CoronaVac. Yet no vaccine has been approved by federal regulators, and the federal government is way behind with its program, says economics commentator Jose Paulo Kupfer.

JOSE PAULO KUPFER: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "It doesn't even have nearly enough syringes and needles," he says.

Bolsonaro's critics say he's making matters worse by undermining efforts to encourage the public to get vaccinated. He says vaccinations won't be compulsory and questions their safety. When a president talks like that, it has an impact, says Joel Pinheiro da Fonseca, a political commentator for Folha newspaper. Just look at the polls.

JOEL PINHEIRO DA FONSECA: In August, what we have is that 9% of Brazilians were saying that they did not intend to get vaccinated. By December, that number was at 22%.

REEVES: Numbers like that are yet another cause for alarm for Duke University scientist Miguel Nicolelis as he tracks the virus from his Sao Paolo living room. He thinks to stop the COVID tsunami, Brazil's governors and mayors must now defy Bolsonaro's wishes and declare a nationwide lockdown.

NICOLELIS: What we cannot do is to sit, look in our computer screens and predict thousands and thousands of deaths happening in a few weeks and do nothing.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.