Brazil bears the brunt of an alarming rise in Covid-19 cases, where deaths reach more than 4,000 in a single day Tuesday and hospitals stretched to breaking point.
As the United States plows vaccinations and public debates continue to reopen the economy with possible ‘vaccine passes’, Brazil’s situation is a reminder that much of the rest of the world is still in the grip of the pandemic.
“It is a nuclear reactor that has initiated a chain reaction and is out of control. It is a biological Fukushima,” Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian physician and professor at Duke University, told Reuters.
The country is struggling with a highly contagious local variant among modest social distancing efforts and a national shortage of hospital beds, according to health experts. Many blame the right-wing populist president Jair Bolsonaro, who has repeatedly denied the benefit of wearing masks and questioned the effectiveness of vaccines, which contradicts global health advice.
Brazil has also been through four health ministers since the pandemic began, slowing planning efforts, with some Brazilians traveling to countries like Uruguay to be vaccinated. Authorities in Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, have emptied old tombs to make way amid rising deaths.
Despite the recent rise, Brazilian officials insist the country may soon return to something resembling business as usual.
“We think that probably two, three months from now Brazil can be back in operation,” Economy Minister Paulo Guedes said during an online event on Tuesday. Meanwhile, leading economists in an open letter urged the government to speed up vaccinations and prepare for emergency locks, contradicting Bolsonaro’s claims that such closures could lead to too many economic difficulties.
The rise in deaths across the globe serves as a grim reminder that despite successful vaccination rollouts in the US, UK and other countries, the global pandemic cannot be suppressed while the virus still lingers and mutations develop.
“No single government or multilateral agency can tackle this threat alone,” the World Health Organization said in a statement last week. “The Covid-19 pandemic has been a sharp and painful reminder that no one is safe until everyone is safe.”
Rowland Kao, professor of veterinary epidemiology and computer science at the University of Edinburgh, said that although vaccines and social restraints worked, “we are certainly not on top of this when we talk globally,” he said.
“The worst thing you can have is a large number of vaccinated people at the same time as a significant number of unvaccinated people with a circulating disease,” he told NBC News. A scenario that increases the chances of transmission and spread of mutated variants that are “vaccine evasive,” he said, while threatening global travel and trade.
Kao said it would require a “balancing act” for the countries to get moving again. “It’s going to be a game, you can keep it out long enough to develop boosters against variations,” he added. “All that is required is a person to cross a border.”
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Elsewhere, the pandemic continues to grow.
India reported a record 115,736 new cases on Wednesday, a 13-fold increase in just over two months with increasing pressure on the government to expand its vaccination campaign.
As another wave gathers momentum, the federal government has asked states to decide on local curbs to control the spread of the virus, but has so far refused to introduce any national lock-in feature after the latter in 2020 devastated the economy.
“The pandemic is not over and there is no room for complacency,” tweeted Health Minister Harsh Vardhan, urging people to “get vaccinated on your trip and follow Covid-appropriate behavior closely!”
Elsewhere in Asia, South Korea on Wednesday reported its highest number of new cases in a single day in three months, amid a rise in infections in kindergartens, saunas, bars and churches, mainly in greater Seoul. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency reported 668 new cases as of Tuesday, the highest level since Jan. 8.
While in Japan, where the Olympics were due to begin in just over 100 days, the western region of Osaka on Wednesday canceled planned Olympic torchlight events and declared a state of medical emergency as cases skyrocketed.
“It is almost certain that this mutant strain is highly contagious with a high transmission rate,” Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura said in television statements. “The medical system is in a very tight situation.”
Arata Yamamoto the contribution.