Weekly Report - 18 November 2021 (WR-21-46)

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BRAZIL: Beating Covid?

Brazil has been racking up encouraging news on the coronavirus (Covid-19). On 8 November, the state of São Paulo did not record a single death from the disease. A week later, on 15 November, Rio de Janeiro’s main Covid-19 hospital discharged its last Covid patient. That same day, Brazil overtook the US in terms of vaccination coverage: according to ‘Our World in Data’, 60% of the Brazilian population is now fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared with 58% in the US.

As a country which saw its healthcare system collapse earlier this year [WR-21-14], which regularly made headlines as the pandemic’s epicentre over the past 18 months, and which still has the second-highest official Covid-19 death toll in the world with over 610,000 victims, these developments are positive for Brazil. Testimony to the effects of what has become a successful vaccine rollout, new cases and deaths have both been on a steady downwards trend for months. Restrictions imposed at a local level have largely been lifted, and a number of cities, including São Paulo and Rio, are enthusiastically preparing for the 2022 Carnival season.

Scientists and public health experts are sounding cautionary notes, however. In its 12 November epidemiological bulletin, the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz (Fiocruz) public health institute said that the World Health Organization (WHO)’s warning to Europe and Central Asia, where cases are soaring again even in countries with high vaccination rates such as Germany, should serve as an example to Brazil. Stressing the importance of making the coronavirus vaccine available and encouraging its uptake, the Fiocruz highlighted that the jab is not the only tool to fight the disease and said that measures such as the use of facemasks, controls on travellers arriving into the country, and effective testing and tracing must be maintained.

Despite President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-vax stance – he says he will not get the vaccine and has associated the jab with a range of ills, including turning into an alligator and getting AIDS [WR-21-43] – vaccine scepticism is not an issue in Brazil. Nevertheless, there are concerns about second jab uptake and the Fiocruz warned last week that the distribution of first jabs is slowing, with the percentage of the population having received at least one jab growing from 71.03% in mid-October to just 73.27% in mid-November. The Fiocruz estimates that 86% of the total population is currently eligible to get the jab.

The use of vaccine passports in dozens of municipalities might help address these concerns. Proof of vaccination is also now required to enter a number of public buildings, such as congress. But the issue of vaccine passports has opened a new battlefront between the federal government, which has always opposed any kind of restrictive measures to combat Covid-19, and the local authorities which are implementing vaccine mandates.

  • ‘Vaccination mega-campaign’

On 16 November Brazil’s federal health ministry announced the launch of a ‘mega vaccination’ campaign, which aims to encourage uptake amongst the 21m Brazilians who are due their second Covid-19 jab but are yet to get it. Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga also said that all Brazilians over the age of 18 will now be offered a third booster jab – previously reserved for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions – five months after their second dose.   

On 1 November, Bolsonaro issued a decree making it illegal to fire employees who refuse to get the Covid-19 vaccine – a move which directly challenged São Paulo state governor João Doria, a potential presidential rival of Bolsonaro next year. A week later, the government’s special secretariat for culture issued an executive order banning cultural activities which have been financed under the ‘Lei Rouanet’, a cultural incentive law, from demanding vaccine passports. Both these measures have been condemned as a further sign of the Bolsonaro government’s denialist stance on Covid-19. Supreme court (STF) justice Roberto Luis Barroso partially suspended the first decree on 12 November, while public prosecutors and the political opposition have challenged the second one.      

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