has been investigating far-right President Jair Bolsonaro
's denialist approach to the COVID-19 pandemic
for two months.
His administration is facing corruption
allegations related to the purchase of vaccines
, which it has administered far too slowly to slow the spread of the virus, and lawmakers are calling for Bolsonaro's impeachment
. The Brazilian Supreme Court
is investigating one of the alleged vaccine schemes, and tens of thousands of anti-Bolsonaro protesters blanketed the streets of the country's largest cities on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Brazil's pandemic is wreaking havoc on South America
's largest country, with one of the country's top scientists projecting that in the next two months, Brazil will likely surpass the United States
as the global leader in COVID-19 deaths.
“I have no doubt
that in the next 60 days or so, we will pass the United States in total number of deaths,” said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a Duke University
neuroscientist who has been modeling Brazil’s pandemic outlook from So Paulo since last year.
This bleak milestone will bolster Bolsonaro's critics, who have been claiming for a year that the right-wing leader has spent more time spreading misinformation
and fighting pandemic-related restrictions, the media
, and political opponents than the virus itself.
According to official figures, nearly 530,000 Brazilians have died as a result of COVID-19, trailing only the United States with nearly 605,000 deaths.
However, while the number of new cases and deaths in the United States has decreased as the majority of the country has been vaccinated, Brazil has suffered an average of 1,500 deaths per day over the last week, putting the country on track to dethrone the United States from its ignominious perch atop the list of deaths, a position it has held since April
Brazil's current daily death toll
has dropped from nearly 2,000 in early June, when experts feared the country was on the verge of a devastating third wave. According to The New York Times
, new infections have dropped 33% in the last two weeks, and Monday's 695 recorded deaths were the fewest since March.
However, some experts continue to see signs of concern in unexpected places.
“It’s going down, but we’re nowhere near relaxing or thinking that the worst is over,” Marcia Castro, chair of Harvard
’s Department of Global Health
and Population, said from Rio de Janeiro
“We’re not really doing anything different, and there’s still a lot of misinformation circulating, some of it right from the top levels of government, so [while] things are looking up, we’re not completely safe from a new surge.”
The delta variant
, which has ravaged other parts of the world and forced some countries to reimpose lockdowns and other restrictions, could soon threaten Brazil, according to the country's health ministry, which confirmed in late June that a woman who died on April 18 had been infected with the variant, the country's first known death related to the strain, which is thought to have originated in India
Officials in So Paulo confirmed the first delta variant infection on Monday, raising concerns that the variant could spread quickly from Brazil's largest city during the Southern Hemisphere winter, which has already featured unusually low temperatures in parts of the country.
“We are seeing signs that winter will be extremely dangerous,” Nicolelis said.
Maybe we'll pass the US, but that's not what worries me; what worries me is what's behind those huge numbers in both countries.
Marcia Castro is the chair of Harvard's Department of Global Health and Population.
Brazil has administered more than 100 million vaccine doses, and more than one-third of its population has received at least one dose; however, only 13% of its eligible population is fully vaccinated, a total that lags far behind Chile and Uruguay, which have both vaccinated more than half of their adult populations, the highest shares in Latin America (though the populations of the two countries are much smaller).
Brazil has long been regarded as a global leader in infectious disease management and vaccine administration — an experienced nation that has developed new treatments, conducted pioneering vaccine experiments, and inoculated millions of people
per day against viral
infections in the past.
Much of Brazil's early difficulties were due to a lack of vaccine doses, which the country is still dealing with; however, as the pace of rollout improves — Brazil administered 2 million doses on some days in June — the vaccines have emerged as yet another source of frustration and anger with Bolsonaro's government, and yet another example of how he has mismanaged the pandemic.
“Brazil has the knowledge and experience to do it,” Castro said, adding, “the problem is, the national immunization program, which has been internationally recognized as fantastic, is not happening the way it should be happening, if we had guidance coming from the top levels.”
Similarly to the United States, Brazilian state and municipal governments have been left to determine their own timelines and strategies for administering vaccines, hampering the country's overall response and potentially exacerbating existing disparities between Brazilians living in richer and poorer areas of the country.
“In the absence of this national coordination, municipalities have been forced to make decisions they have never had to make before,” Castro continued, adding that “if it had the doses and the national coordination, Brazil could have a much higher percentage of the population already vaccinated.”
According to testimony presented during an official congressional investigation
into the government's handling of the pandemic, Bolsonaro, a vaccine skeptic who has downplayed the virus's severity and opposed lockdowns and other mitigation measures, ignored early offers from Pfizer
to supply Brazil with vaccines last year.
The government has also faced allegations of corruption in its attempts to secure vaccines: Folha de S.Paulo, Brazil's largest newspaper, reported last week that a man claiming to represent a U.S.-based medical supply company claimed that a member of the Bolsonaro government attempted to negotiate a $1-per-dose bribe while acquiring vaccines.
After a Health Ministry official testified to a congressional commission
that the government paid more than market rate for the doses, Brazil's Supreme Court authorized the attorney general to investigate the allegations involving the India-developed Covaxin vaccine.
Bolsonaro has denied any wrongdoing or knowledge of the alleged actions of his ministries in both cases, but the magnitude of the tragedy wreaking havoc on his country, as well as the information revealed during the congressional investigation, has pushed his approval ratings to new lows and driven angry Brazilians to the streets for mass protests
of the type they avoided earlier in the pandemic.
Protest organizers had expressed reservations about staging the July 3 marches after previous protests drew such large crowds, but ultimately decided they could do so safely by asking attendees to wear masks
and social distance.
Even though more than 100 members of Congress have petitioned for his impeachment, it is unlikely that the allegations of corruption or Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic will result in his presidency being ended prematurely.
However, early polls indicate that Bolsonaro may lose to former President Luiz Inácio da Silva in next year's presidential elections
, and Bolsonaro has become more desperate in the face of the crises surrounding his presidency: his government has cracked down on dissent and criticism, and Bolsonaro himself has already begun laying the groundwork to claim that a potential election loss is due to fraud
Whether Brazil eventually overtakes the United States in coronavirus
deaths does not change the magnitude of the tragedies that have befallen both countries. The United States, for example, could still exceed its death toll from the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, when an estimated 675,000 people died, and regional disparities in vaccination
rates have left large swaths of the country vulnerable to the delta variant.
“The two countries have lost more than 1.2 million people; it’s completely unbearable,” Castro said. “Perhaps we will pass the US, but that’s the least of my concerns; what concerns me the most is what’s behind those huge numbers in both countries.”
However, while the United States has largely reversed course under President Joe Biden
since defeating Donald Trump
last year, Bolsonaro has forged ahead. “Brazil is the only country in the world where you have to fight the pandemic and the political pandemonium,” Nicolelis said.