Brazil’s High COVID-19 Death Toll is Blamed on Government’s ‘Deliberate’ Spread of Virus
Brazil’s flag draped over a coffin.

Brazil’s official death toll from COVID-19 reached 600,000 late Friday, the second-highest in the world after the US – and a leading epidemiologist blames the Bolsonaro administration for deliberately spreading the virus to achieve “herd immunity”.

“Brazil’s federal government put in place a deliberate policy of exposing the population to the pandemic,” according to Cesar Vitora, Emeritus Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Pelotas and renowned global child health expert.

“In the beginning, we thought they were just incompetent but it was actually deliberate because they tried to reach herd immunity soon so that the economy could go back and start growing. Those 600,000 deaths were not due to incompetence or lack of knowledge but due to deliberate efforts,” he told a meeting last week convened by the Swedish medical university, Karolinska Institutet.

Active dissemination of patients to other states

According to Vitora, instead of isolating people in the Amazon region who had been infected with a new and more potent Gamma (P1) variant, government health officials “actually started sending critically ill patients to all 27 states in the country, an active dissemination strategy, that now is more understandable because that was part of their effort to reach ‘herd immunity’ as a deliberate policy.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressly warned that “herd immunity against COVID-19 should be achieved by protecting people through vaccination, not by exposing them to the pathogen that causes the disease”.

Earlier in the year, human rights researchers from the Conectas Human Rights organisation and the Center for Studies and Research on Health Law (CEPEDISA) at the University of São Paulo also asserted “the existence of an institutional strategy that attempts to spread the virus, promoted by the Brazilian government and spearheaded by the Presidency of the Republic”.

The researchers came to this conclusion by analysing federal government rules and presidential vetoes during the pandemic; “acts of obstruction” to state and municipal government efforts to respond to the pandemic; and “propaganda against public health” aimed at “discrediting health authorities, weakening popular adherence to science-based recommendations, and promoting political activism against the public health measures required to contain the spread of COVID-19”.

The research reveals the “commitment and efficiency of the federal government’s work in favor of the extensive spread of the virus in Brazilian territory, with the stated goal of resuming economic activity as quickly as possible and at any cost”, concluded the researchers headed by Professors Deisy Ventura, Fernando Abujamra Aith and Rossana Reis.

Bolsonaro ‘dereliction of duty’ probe

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro

They subsequently submitted their research to a parliamentary inquiry into the federal government’s pandemic response which was convened between April and late June, coinciding with the country’s deadliest two COVID-19 waves that averaged 74,000 to 76,000 new cases per day.

The inquiry also probed possible corruption in a $300-million deal in which Bharat Biotech offered to sell its indigenously-made COVID-19 vaccine, Covaxin, to Brazil for a whopping $15 per dose – yet after 18 months, not a single dose had materialised.

In July, after the televised inquiry, Brazil’s top prosecutor said he would request an investigation of President Jair Bolsonaro for dereliction of duty during the process of procuring Covaxin.

Vitora said that Bolsonaro and his officials “minimised the health effects of COVID at first, then they opposed lockdowns and social distancing. They discouraged the use of face masks. They delayed the procurement of vaccines. We were very late to start vaccinating. And they constantly challenged the effectiveness of vaccines. As you well know, the only president in the United Nations General Assembly recently who had not been vaccinated was Bolsonaro.”

Poor Black Brazilians and indigenous people have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic, said Vitora.

While the US has more deaths than Brazil, Brazil’s per capita death toll is considerably higher – 2,847 deaths per million to the US’s 2,162 deaths per million. The nation of over 212,6 million people has officially recorded over 21 million deaths although the figure is likely to be much higher.

A large study that Vitora was involved in that was aimed at assessing the impact of the pandemic in 133 Brazilian cities had to be stopped because the government sent out messages to people on WhatsApp telling them “not allow our interviewers to collect a fingerprint blood sample antibody test”, he added.

Fake cures

Bolsonaro, who has gone through three health ministers in the past 18 months, has promoted ivermectin and hydroychloroquine to treat COVID-19, frequently said that the virus would ‘soon’ pass and also used his veto powers to undermine state governors’ attempts to contain the pandemic through lockdowns and social distancing measures.

“Everything right now is pandemic this, pandemic that. Come on, this has to stop. I am sorry for the dead, I am. We’ll all die one day. There’s no use trying to escape it, to escape reality. We can no longer be a country of sissies, come on,” Bolsanero said in a public address last November.

Last December, 11 former Ministers of Health from different political parties published an article denouncing the “disastrous and inefficient conduct of the Ministry of Health in relation to the Brazilian strategy of vaccinating the population against COVID-19”.

The following month, a supreme court injunction allowed states to vaccinate citizens with approved vaccines and to import vaccines.

Shortly afterwards, Bolsanero said that Pfizer was “tampering with people’s immune systems” and was refusing to take responsibility for side effects, including “if you turn into an alligator… If you become Superman, if some woman is born with a beard, or if a man starts to have a thin voice”.

“Fake news has been a cornerstone of the Bolsanero government’s handling of the pandemic,” said Vitora, stressing that the medical and scientific community had to work out “how to communicate science in a way that it reaches the whole population, counterbalancing, the massive dissemination of fake news by people with bad intentions, who are not interested in science”.

However, Brazil finally seems to be turning the tide on the pandemic, and has vaccinated almost 48% of its population. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro was denied entry to a soccer match over the weekend because he is unvaccinated.

Image Credits: Rafaela Biazi/ Unsplash.

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