Brazil’s death toll from COVID-19 is expected to hit 100,000 on Saturday and continue to climb as most Brazilian cities reopen shops and dining even though the pandemic has yet to peak.
Confronting its most lethal outbreak since the Spanish flu a century ago, Brazil reported its first cases of the novel coronavirus at the end of February. The virus took three months to kill 50,000 people, and just 50 days to kill the next 50,000.
Led by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has played down the gravity of the epidemic and fought lockdowns by local officials, Brazilians who protested nightly from their windows in the first months of the outbreak have met the grim milestone with a shrug.
“We should be living in despair, because this is a tragedy like a world war. But Brazil is under collective anesthesia,” said Dr. José Davi Urbaez, a senior member of the Infectious Diseases Society.
He and other pubic health experts have raised the alarm that Brazil still has no coordinated plan to fight the pandemic, as many officials focus on “reopening,” which is likely to boost circulation and worsen the outbreak.
Two health ministers, both trained doctors, have resigned over differences with Bolsonaro. The acting minister is an army general who has abandoned the call for social distancing, which experts says is essential but the president opposes.
Bolsonaro, who has called COVID-19 a “little flu,” says he recovered from his own infection thanks to hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malarial drug that remains unproven against the coronavirus.
“We don’t know where it will stop, maybe at 150,000 or 200,000 deaths. Only time will show the full impact of COVID-19 here,” said Alexandre Naime, head of the Sao Paulo State University’s department of infectious diseases.
He said the only comparison may be diseases brought by colonizers, such as smallpox, that decimated indigenous populations when Europeans first arrived in the Americas.
While that history is long past, Urbaez said Brazil today seems equally resigned to the COVID-19 deaths to come.
“The government’s message today is: ‘Catch your coronavirus and if it’s serious, there is intensive care.’ That sums up our policy today,” Urbaez said.