Covid-19: Brazil warned to brace for worst month of pandemic

Country recorded 30,484 deaths last month as health officials demand tighter restrictions

Passengers disembark a train at Luz station in São Paulo, Brazil, on February 26th, 2021. File photograph: EPA/Sebastiao Moreira

With death tolls soaring and health systems across the country creaking under the strain of a new wave of coronavirus, Brazil is bracing for what health officials warn could be its worst month of the pandemic yet.

Five of the six days to Monday saw the daily average of deaths recorded over seven days reach new highs, helping make February – with 30,484 fatalities – the country’s second deadliest month after July last year, with no sign of the rate of infections slowing in March.

The pressure on intensive care units in 18 of the country’s 26 states is now the highest since coronavirus was first detected in Brazil a year ago, with experts at the health ministry’s Fiocruz research institute warning of a possible imminent collapse of the national health system.

With more than 1,200 people dying from Covid-19 on average every day, Brazil's death toll has soared past 255,000, the second highest after the United States.


The virulence of the current wave gripping the country is being blamed in part on the spread of the P1 variant that was first detected in the jungle city of Manaus at the end of last year causing more deaths there in the past two months than in all of 2020.

Initial research into this new Brazilian variant, which is causing global concern, shows it can be more than two times more contagious than previous versions of coronavirus and have a much higher chance of reinfecting people who have already caught Covid-19.

Other aggravating causes in Brazil's current spike are waning adherence to social distancing protocols by much of the population and Brazil's slow start to its vaccination programme. In January, the under-fire health minister, four-star general Eduardo Pazuello, promised the country would quickly become first or second in the world for vaccinations administered.

But problems in sourcing sufficient doses after months in which the federal government haggled with pharmaceutical companies over costs and conditions has seen many cities forced to suspend vaccinations because of a lack of supplies. So far, only 6.8 million people have received a first dose, which represents just more than 3.2 per cent of the country’s 211 million inhabitants.


Having ignored calls in recent weeks by health experts to impose stricter quarantine measures in order to try to contain the impact of the latest wave, state administrations are now calling for tighter controls. On Monday, the national council of state health secretaries demanded a national curfew and the closure of churches, schools, bars and beaches.

But Brazil's far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has come out against any tightening of restrictions, claiming lockdowns do not work in combating the virus. He has endorsed protests against restrictions imposed in the capital Brasília by federal district governor Ibaneis Rocha who, in response to pressure, quickly eased his own restrictions despite the city's intensive care units being nearly full.

Mr Bolsonaro has also warned that governors who lock down their states will in the future have to fund emergency payments to those affected, claiming his opponents are seeking to use quarantine to harm him politically.

Since the start of the pandemic, Mr Bolsonaro has emerged as a leading coronavirus denier who has consistently sought to downplay its impact, going so far as to campaign against the vaccination planning being undertaken by the governor of São Paulo, a political rival.

Even as deaths spiralled in the country he fought against the efforts of mayors and governors to impose restrictions to check the spread of the virus and, despite more than a quarter of a million deaths, still speaks out against the use of face masks in public.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America