Brazil surpasses 600,000 virus deaths amid delta doubts

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SAO PAULO (AP) – Bars in Brazil’s largest metropolis, Sao Paulo, are full again for Friday happy hours and lawmakers in the capital have all but removed video sessions via Zoom. Rio de Janeiro’s beaches are crowded and calls for strict social distancing seem like a memory.

These developments are part of Brazil’s attempt to return to normalcy before the pandemic, even as its death toll exceeds 600,000, according to official data from the Ministry of Health on Friday. Relief from COVID-19 cases and deaths has been particularly welcome given warnings from experts that the delta variant will produce another wave of destruction in the country with the second highest number of casualties. So far, this has not materialized.

The country’s average daily death toll hovered around 500 for a month, down sharply from more than 3,000 in April. Almost 45% of the population is fully vaccinated and a booster is given to the elderly. A greater percentage of Brazilians are at least partially vaccinated compared to Americans or Germans, according to Our World in Data, an online research site.

The improvement encouraged mayors and governors to admit fans to football matches and to let bars and restaurants stay open until the early hours of the morning. Some are even considering the end of mask mandates, which people often ignore already. And the mayor of Rio has announced plans to bring the city’s big New Year’s party back to Copacabana beach.

Gonzalo Vecina, professor of public health at the University of Sao Paulo, told The Associated Press in July that the delta, which is more contagious, would cause “another explosion” of cases within weeks. He was hardly the only one among the experts to sound the alarm bells.

Now, Vecina believes the high number of Brazilians infected earlier this year with the gamma variant – first identified in the Amazon city of Manaus – may have slowed the delta’s progress.

“This is not a conclusion of a study; it is a possibility that we raise in the face of what we see, ”said Vecina. “We are seeing an increase in the delta in countries that have reopened as much as Brazil, and our number of cases continues to decline, with a few very specific exceptions.”

Some analysts remain concerned about the potential for the delta to spread. Among them is Miguel Lago, executive director of the Brazilian Institute for Health Policy Studies, which advises public health officials. He believes authorities are taking considerable risks by reopening too much and announcing celebrations, and that Brazil may soon see more hospital admissions.

“The pandemic has diminished, but 500 deaths a day is far from good. And we don’t even have half the population fully vaccinated, ”Lago said. “We just don’t know enough and we have this horrible step to consider now. “

Friday morning, in Copacabana where the New Year’s party will take place in Rio in less than three months, the militant group Rio da Paz held a memorial on its sands to mourn the 600,000 dead, with hundreds of white scarves hanging from the ropes .

Across town, during a support group for family members of virus victims, Bruna Chaves mourned the loss of her mother and stepfather.

“It wasn’t just 600,000 people who left; that’s a lot of people who die with them, emotionally, ”Chaves said in an interview. “It’s absurd that people treat him like he’s a few. It is a large number.

Many Brazilians continue to downplay the severity of the pandemic, chief among them President Jair Bolsonaro, whose popularity has slumped largely due to his government’s chaotic response to the pandemic. But he hasn’t strayed from his stances, including steadfast support for drugs that have proven ineffective against the virus, like hydroxychloroquine.

He also continues to criticize activity restrictions adopted by mayors and governors, saying Brazil needs to keep up with the economy to avoid inflicting more severe hardship on the poor. On Thursday evening, on a live Facebook show, he showed a series of newspaper articles reporting on the economic crisis in Europe and the United States last year in an attempt to prove he still had raison.

Months after the New Year’s party, Rio will also host the carnival, according to Mayor Eduardo Paes. And he said social distancing was out of the question.

“It would be ridiculous to ask people to stand a meter away. If that were the case, I would be the first to disrespect that, ”he told residents of a middle-class neighborhood on Monday. “Science has advanced, it has won, it allows us to open up. “

Brazil’s long history with vaccination campaigns has played an important role in slowing the spread of the virus, with wide adoption. Almost three-quarters of Brazilians have received at least one dose so far – despite Bolsonaro having spent months casting doubt on their effectiveness and not getting vaccinated himself. Even most of his supporters have rolled up their sleeves.

As Brazil surpasses 600,000 deaths, a Senate investigation into the government’s handling of the pandemic is drawing to a close. Senator Renan Calheiros, who will write the final report of the investigation, told reporters on Wednesday it will include the recommendation of at least 40 people to be charged, including Bolsonaro, his former health minister Gen. Eduardo Pazuello and several allies.

Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, said scientists had played their part in alerting Brazilians to the dangers of the pandemic, but their advice should have been better heeded.

“What remains now is the memory of this tragedy which marks the history of the country and our lives, plunged into collective mourning, imprinted with sadness and indignation,” said Davidovich.

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AP video journalist Lucas Dumphreys has contributed from Rio de Janeiro.


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