Brazilian doctors are fuming, joining growing ranks of furious compatriots, about President Jair Bolsonaroâs widely criticized mishandling of the countryâs coronavirus crisis just as businesses begin to reopen despite rising deaths.
âYes, itâs Bolsonaroâs fault,â said Thais Couto, a 32-year-old lung surgeon in Sao Paulo, who like many doctors around the nation is exhausted and overwhelmed as Brazil sees roughly 1,200 deaths per day or one a minute. âFrom the beginning, he hasnât taken this seriously, laughing about the disease and saying itâs just a flu and not a big deal.â
Earlier this month, a Brazilian supreme court judge ordered Bolsonaroâs administration to resume publishing complete COVID-19 statistics after leadership purged the health ministry website of historical data relating to the pandemic and announced it would stop publishing the cumulative death toll or number of infections.
The death toll in Latin Americaâs largest economy stands at 50,591 through Sunday, according to the Johns Hopkins University & Medicine dashboard. Total infections have reached just more than 1.08 million. Brazil is on track to surpass the U.S. as the country with the worldâs deadliest outbreak, probably by late July, according to the University of Washingtonâs Institution for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
By comparison, the U.S. has reported 117,000 deaths and 2.2 million infections. The number of new cases in the U.S. rose above 30,000 on Friday for the first time since May 1. Globally, the pandemic has killed 461,000 and sickened 8.7 million,
Couto said belief among her colleagues is that Bolsonaro has managed the crisis worse than the U.S. has managed the pandemic, exacerbated as Brazil, with much higher poverty rates, does not have the same resources to fight the illness as the worldâs richest country.
âIf you think Trump is stupid, you donât know Bolsonaro,â said Couto, who had to cancel her first U.S. trip to Orlando after the U.S. president banned Brazilians from entering the country.
Couto, who works in four facilities including state-run Hospital de BrasilÃ¢ndia and private facility Alvorada, said she believes that the right-wing populist Bolsonaroâs virus dismissal has split Brazilians into two camps: those that support his view and value businesses reopening for economic growth and those appalled by his cavalier attitude (recent videos showed him eating a hot dog in public in Brasilia, despite angry protesters calling him an âassassinâ and âbumâ) and worried that major cities are not ready to return to normal, potentially triggering a second wave of illnesses that could spin out of control.
Polls suggest Bolsonaro still enjoys the backing of a third of Brazilians.
âThe problem in Brazil is that COVID-19 has become a highly politicized public emergency,â said Adele Benzaken, a doctor and public health expert in Manaus, the countryâs virus epicenter and home to disturbing mass-grave images shocking the world. âEveryone is blaming the population because they donât care for themselves or use masks or do this or that. But the message from the federal government, the president, ministers and municipalities is always very contradictory [with Bolsonaro clashing with governors over the extent of the lockdowns to protect the economy, for instance]. So people ask, who do I follow, the government or the president or the mayor?â
â âIn the Amazon and in Manaus we have cultural barriers because our indigenous cultures have a lot of difficulties to understand a new disease and the preventions for it.â â
Those clashing messages made things particularly hard in the Amazonian city of Manaus, where cases involving vulnerable indigenous communities quadrupled from May 3 to May 30 reaching 33,200 just before they began to decline, as many people failed to follow social distancing measures.
âIn the Amazon and in Manaus we have cultural barriers because our indigenous cultures have a lot of difficulties to understand a new disease and the preventions for it,â said Benzaken.
Bolsonaro and Manaus Mayor Arthur Virgilio Netoâs bitter dispute over how the city of 2 million should contain the pandemic, coupled with similar skirmishes around the country, has not helped provide a clear message to help people survive COVID-19, she added.
Benzaken, who leads efforts to fight HIV in Brazil, said Brasiliaâs response was inadequate and came too late to stave off a major crisis.
âWe did not have a lockdown and the population is suffering because of that, because of a president that does not believe the disease is serious and is always against the lockdowns,â she said. âEvery weekend, he goes out and eats hot dogs on the street and leads demonstrations to tell people they donât have to stay home.â
Compared to Europe or the U.S., Brazil did not impose national curfews or strict quarantines. Instead, Brasilia let states and local governments decide how to handle the pandemic. This resulted in partial quarantines that were too relaxed, critics claim, urging citizens to follow social distancing recommendations that were not fully enforced. Non-essential businesses such as retailers and restaurants were forced to shutter for three months, however.
Last week, Sao Paulo and Rio began to reopen, with stores and malls hoping to recover from three months of losses, just as Brazil celebrated Valentineâs Day or Dia dos Namorados on June 12.
Couto said the move was a bad idea and could boost infections amid Sao Pauloâs overwhelmed hospitals.
âThings are going to get worse,â she said, adding that the cityâs ICUs will have a hard time coping with a spike in cases amid a critical shortage of doctors who often treat many more patients than they can handle.
Couto agreed with a University of Washington Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME)âs survey that said Brazil could surpass U.S. deaths by July 29 when itâs on track to record 137,500 against the U.S.âs 137,000, based on current infection trends.
â âPeople are not taking this seriously. They think that itâs going to be solved by the Universe. Of course, we have people who are taking care of themselves but others donât believe in this thing. They think itâs political, that the virus doesnât exist.â â
Given Braziliansâ relaxed attitude to life â and the fact that many refuse to wear masks (despite now being now mandatory in most cities) â it would not surprise her if that forecast came true.
âPeople are crazy here in Brazil,â Couto said, adding that many Paulistas (as Sao Paulo natives are called) have ignored social distancing recommendations, going to parties or barber shops. âPeople are not taking this seriously. They think that itâs going to be solved by the Universe. Of course, we have people who are taking care of themselves but others donât believe in this thing. They think itâs political, that the virus doesnât exist.â
Mariana Gimaraes, who works as a fashion PR executive in Sao Paulo, said the reopening is necessary to avert an economic meltdown after retailers and restaurants were shuttered for nearly three months.
âPeople need to make money so they have to reopen businesses,â she said. âAlso, in the city of Sao Paulo, the cases are more stable, unlike Rio where Mayor Marcelo Crivella has said stores will remain closed until cases come down.â
Gimaraes doesnât think Brazilâs pandemic will become as severe as Americaâs.
âI donât think itâs going to be like the U.S. In Sao Paulo state, the state is pursuing very strong policies to ensure everything goes well,â she noted, adding that cities are becoming very strict to ensure businesses follow WHO regulations.
â âPeople need to make money so they have to reopen businesses. Also, in the city of Sao Paulo, the cases are more stable.â â
Meanwhile in the Amazon Jungle, cases are soaring along the Amazon River, with indigenous advocacy groups pleading for the government to send more personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors to treat patients in isolated communities where the sickest must be flown to Manaus for treatment.
âWe are hoping the help will be more robust,â Benzaken said. âYou have 63 municipalities in the Amazon and 60 donât have PPEs or ICUs.â