Brazil poses global health threat as its hospitals buckle under COVID-19, experts warn

With new variants pushing ICUs past their limits, experts are warning that Brazil's soaring COVID-19 infection rates have become a global public health threat.

Scientists predict Brazil could surpass U.S. death toll by July despite smaller population

Relatives of Luiz Alves, 63, who died from COVID-19, react at his funeral in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on March 10, 2021. This week, Brazil set a new daily record with more than 4,000 deaths. (Pilar Olivares/Reuters)

Inside a COVID-19 unit in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, Dr. Tarsila Vieceli said she is seeing firsthand the collapse of the country's health-care system under the weight of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Heart attack and car accident victims, she said, aren't guaranteed an ICU bed, and surgeries are being cancelled. There's a waiting list for ICU beds that are filled with COVID-19 patients who, unlike early in the pandemic, are younger and have no underlying medical conditions. 

"In one shift I did in February in the ICU, out of 10 patients I was taking care of, all of them were on mechanical ventilation — six of those patients were less than 35 years of age," Vieceli said in an interview with CBC News on Skype during a break in her shift. 

This week, Brazil set a new one-day record for COVID-19 deaths, with the health ministry reporting 4,195 dead on Tuesday. Scientists are warning the country could surpass the record wave of deaths set in January in the U.S. 

As of Thursday, Brazil had 340,776 deaths from COVID-19, according to a count maintained by Johns Hopkins University. Researchers warn that by July, Brazil's rapid rise in deaths could see it surpass the United States in total deaths despite having two-thirds the population. 

Global health threat

With the virus still running rampant, inadequate vaccine supplies and a president who continues to be indifferent, experts in Brazil are calling for international assistance to stop what epidemiologist Pedro Hallal calls "a threat to global public health."

Health workers treat a patient among others suffering from COVID-19 at a field hospital set up in a sports gym on the outskirts of Sao Paulo. (Amanda Perobelli/Reuters)

Hallal, an associate professor of epidemiology at Federal University in Pelotas, said calling the country a threat to the world isn't overstating the problem. He said waiting lists for ICUs are a sign the country's health-care system has collapsed.

"We are obviously a threat to ourselves because the virus is out of control, and we break records every single day. But we are also a threat to global public health because we are pretty much a factory of variants," he said in an interview with CBC News.

The P1 variant, first discovered in Brazil, is now spreading around the world, including in Canada. This week, Brazilian experts also found cases of the variant first discovered in South Africa, and scientists warned of a potentially new variant emerging this week in the city of Belo Horizonte. 

Hallal is calling on the international community to step in to provide vaccines and put political pressure on the country's leaders to help address the problems in Brazil. 

"We need help from the World Health Organization, from the United Nations, from the governments in other countries, because it's not our problem alone," Hallal said. 

'Enough fussing and whining': Bolsonaro

As has been seen with the spread of the P1 variant, the problem can't be contained within Brazil's borders, Hallal said.

"It's a problem for you, because if we are producing new variants, some of them will go on, and we will infect the world's population," he said.

WATCH | Brazilian epidemiologist: 'It's not our problem alone':

Brazilian epidemiologist: 'It's not our problem alone'

2 years ago
Duration 1:01
Dr. Pedro Hallal, an associate professor of epidemiology at Universidade Federal de Pelotas, explains how the dire COVID-19 situation in Brazil is a threat to the entire global community.

Efforts to stem the spread of the virus vary across the country, with local and state governments trying to enforce partial lockdowns and stay-at-home orders. Throughout the pandemic, those efforts have been opposed, even undermined, by President Jair Bolsonaro. 

Bolsonaro said on Wednesday that there will be no national lockdown. He continues to minimize the threat of COVID-19, saying distancing and public health measures are bad for the economy.

"We are not going to accept this policy of staying at home, of closing everything down," Bolsonaro said in a speech Wednesday. 

In March, after a previous record-setting pair of days, Bolsonaro told Brazilians to stop whining. 

Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, attends a promotion ceremony for generals of the armed forces at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia. He continues to downplay the severity of the pandemic and is now on his fourth health minister since the beginning of the pandemic. (Adriano Machado/Reuters)

"Enough fussing and whining. How much longer will the crying go on?" Bolsonaro told a crowd at an event. "How much longer will you stay at home and close everything? No one can stand it anymore."

Bolsonaro continues to pitch, despite a lack of studies showing its effectiveness, treatments such as hydroxychloroquine. Politically, he recently overhauled his cabinet, replacing six ministers, though not the health minister, who was already replaced last month. That gave Bolsonaro his fourth health minister since the pandemic began.

"The president is playing on the same team as the virus, and we are playing on the other team," said Hallal, expressing the frustration of many in Brazil's scientific community. 

"It's very difficult to fight against the virus and the president and that's why the situation is so bad in Brazil."

Vaccinations increasing

In Sao Paulo, the country's biggest city, officials said they would begin digging about 600 new graves per day, well beyond the record of 426 burials in a day on March 30. 

The city is also preparing plans for a "vertical cemetery," a crypt with 26,000 drawer-like graves that can be built in 90 days once approved.

The country does have a robust vaccination program, but issues with supply are hampering efforts. So far, less than 10 per cent of Brazilians have been vaccinated. The country was slow to secure early vaccine supplies, and it's now racing to catch up.

Still, government officials are sounding an optimistic tone, insisting that the country can return to normalcy soon.

"We think that probably two, three months from now, Brazil could be back to business," Economy Minister Paulo Guedes said during an online event on Tuesday.

"Of course, probably, economic activity will take a drop. But it will be much, much less than the drop we suffered last year ... and much, much shorter."

WATCH | A breakdown of Brazil's coronavirus death toll:

A breakdown of Brazil's coronavirus death toll

2 years ago
Duration 0:56
As Brazil continues to struggle against COVID-19, the number of deaths in the country has been climbing to new heights.

Hallal isn't that optimistic but said Brazil could be vaccinating 1.5 million people daily if the supply were available. 

"The situation is still bad, but in terms of the vaccine, fortunately, we are moving in the right direction," he said.

Vieceli said the international community can help increase the vaccine supply, which would go a long way to assisting Brazil.

"I think nobody's safe until everyone is safe," she said. "It would be no good to vaccinate everyone outside Brazil while we are harvesting variants."


Steven D'Souza

Co-host, The Fifth Estate

Steven D'Souza is a co-host with The Fifth Estate. Previously he was CBC's correspondent in New York covering two U.S. Presidential campaigns and travelling around the U.S. covering everything from protests to natural disasters to mass shootings. He won a Canadian Screen Award for coverage of the protests around the death of George Floyd. He's reported internationally from Rome, Israel and Brazil.

with files from Reuters, The Associated Press

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