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Weekly Report - 08 April 2021 (WR-21-14)

BRAZIL: No respite ahead

Brazil recorded more than 66,000 deaths from the coronavirus (Covid-19) throughout the month of March, a figure which was more than double the previous monthly record of fatalities from the virus last July. The death toll in April is expected to be higher still, as the country continues to grapple with an unrelenting wave of infections, piecemeal and insufficient restrictions that are undermined by a lack of coordination, and a flawed vaccination process. Added to this, the spectre of hunger and poverty looms large over a growing proportion of the population.

Brazil suffered a record 4,195 deaths from Covid-19 on 6 April, the first time the daily death toll exceeded 4,000. As of 7 April, overall fatalities totalled 340,776 while cumulative cases stood at 13.2m. Dimas Covas, the director of the Instituto Butantan, a scientific research institute linked to the São Paulo state government and which is responsible for producing the Chinese CoronaVac vaccine in Brazil, has warned that the death toll will soon reach 5,000 fatalities per day. The Fiocruz public health institute, which is producing the AstraZeneca vaccine for Brazil, noted on 6 April that the lethality rate of Covid-19 is increasing from one week to the next, likely due to lower capacity to diagnose and care for serious cases as a result of the strain on the healthcare system.

A projection model by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington in the US, based on data as of 1 April, expects Brazil’s daily death toll to peak at around 4,000 on 24 April before it starts falling. The IHME predicts that Brazil will see around 100,000 deaths from Covid-19 in April alone, even in its ‘universal masks’ scenario, where 95% of the population would start wearing facemasks, thus helping to reduce transmission (it is estimated that 69% of the population currently uses facemasks in Brazil).

Scientific experts in Brazil remain unanimous on the need for a strict lockdown to save lives, amid predictions that the country will reach half a million Covid-19 victims by the middle of the year. “What is urgent right now is to fight the epidemic. The vaccine is an additional resource. But the direct fight against the epidemic is done through reducing transmission. Transmission will be reduced by taking bitter social distancing measures,” Covas told financial daily Valor Econômico on 5 April.

But lockdowns are fiercely opposed by President Jair Bolsonaro at a federal level, and some local political leaders aligned with him, and half-heartedly implemented by those mayors and state governors who do believe in them. Covas noted that the authorities’ refusal even to contemplate lockdown measures equates to them accepting that the current rate of deaths and hospitalisations will continue. When questioned about Bolsonaro’s attitude to the virus, Covas accused the president of carrying out “social Darwinism” by exposing everyone to Covid-19.  

Local efforts to impose restrictions are ad hoc and poorly enforced, as illustrated by the cases of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Both cities declared a 10-day-long public holiday from the end of March until the Easter weekend in a bid to keep people at home and slow the infection rate (hospital occupancy is over 90% in both eponymous states).

In Rio, the restrictions were preceded by a spat between the city’s mayor, Eduardo Paes, and the acting state governor, Claudio Castro, over whose decrees took precedence (Paes won that particular dispute). Anti-lockdown protests were staged in both cities, and police spent the long public holiday breaking up illegal parties.

Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has not budged on his anti-lockdown stance, which critics brand “genocidal”. “We are not going to accept the policy of stay-at-home, close everything, lockdown,” Bolsonaro said during a visit to the city of Chapecó, in the southern state of Santa Catarina, on 7 April, repeating that the “collateral effect” of containing the virus cannot be more harmful than the disease itself.

Bolsonaro has often defended his rejection of lockdowns by citing their negative side effects, such as their impact on mental health and unemployment. This seemingly ignores the fact that the ‘lives or livelihoods’ debate that initially surrounded lockdowns at the start of the pandemic has now been proven a fallacy.

The other virus

Despite the lack of serious lockdown measures, Brazil has not escaped the problems that Bolsonaro claims to be seeking to avoid, notably a rise in poverty and food insecurity, as well as high unemployment (now at 14.2%). Government handouts that reached around a third of the population for part of last year helped mitigate these ills; but the aid was cut from a monthly R$600 (US$106) to R$300 in the last four months of 2020, before being scrapped completely.

On 5 April, the ‘Jornal Nacional’ news bulletin of the television network Globo cited figures from the Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV) university according to which the number of people living in poverty in Brazil tripled between August 2020 and February 2021, from 9.5m to 27.3m. This coincided not only with the tapering off of the ‘auxílio emergencial’ pandemic aid, but also with a rise in inflation, which hit the lower income segments of the population particularly hard. According to the FGV’s Marcelo Néry, in those six months the poverty rate went from the lowest level ever observed since current records began in 2012, to the highest level ever recorded.

In parallel, the results of a report by Rede Penssan, a network of academics and researchers specialised in food security, show that the proportion of the population affected by food insecurity has also reached unprecedented levels. Looking at data from December 2020, the report found that over half of Brazilians (116.8m) suffer from a certain degree of food insecurity; of these, 19.1m (9% of the population) suffer from serious food insecurity, that is to say they go hungry. This figure is the highest in 17 years and almost double what it was in 2018.

“The research reveals a process of intense acceleration of hunger…between 2018 and 2020…We can suppose that in the first quarter of this year the situation has got even worse,” Francisco Menezes of ActionAid, an NGO that supported the report, said. The report also notes that the impact of the pandemic has led people who are not classified as living in poverty to suffer from slight food insecurity.

This week, the government finally started paying out a new round of pandemic emergency aid to vulnerable Brazilians, which many perceive as long overdue considering the severity of the public health crisis. However, at between R$150-R$375 per household for around 46m eligible recipients, it will have far less of an impact on alleviating hunger and poverty, and kickstarting the economy through boosting consumption, than last year’s iteration, which reached 68m Brazilians.       

Searching for more vaccines

With President Bolsonaro now supporting mass vaccination as a response to the coronavirus pandemic, Brazil’s new health minister, Marcelo Queiroga, has upped the government’s efforts to source vaccines. On 3 April, Queiroga discussed collaboration to expand Brazil’s vaccine production capacity with the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, whom Bolsonaro has frequently derided, and a representative from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). Queiroga has also sought support on vaccines from China, the US, and Russia in recent days. Brazil has now given at least one shot of the Covid-19 vaccine to around 10% of the population, but production delays are expected to slow down the vaccination drive. 

IBGE

Brazil’s national statistics institute (IBGE) has cancelled its recruitment exams for new employees, notably census officers, due to take place this month, as a cut in its allocated budget threatens its work. In the yet-to-be-sanctioned 2021 budget, the IBGE has been allocated R$71m, down from the R$2bn initially earmarked; the institute has warned that this makes it impossible to carry out the 2021 census (already delayed from 2020 due to the pandemic). “The country needs the information generated by the census, which is essential to support public policies in various areas, especially in a pandemic context,” the IBGE highlighted in a note after congress approved the budget in March.