In mid-March, as cases of the coronavirus rose in Brazil, and news of the country’s first death from COVID-19 made headlines, President Jair Bolsonaro described it as just a “little flu.”
Bolsonaro claimed that, with his athletic physique, it wouldn’t affect him much. He extended the thought to his fellow citizens: Brazilians will have a natural immunity to the virus, he said, declaring that they can swim in sewage and “nothing happens.”
The coronavirus pandemic was relatively slow to reach Latin America, but Brazil, the region’s largest country, has been hit hardest so far: As of Tuesday, it had 23,430 confirmed cases and 1,328 deaths. Still, as the numbers climbed, the president continued to downplay the virus’s impact.
In response, state governors and city mayors took matters into their own hands — most enacted some form of social isolation and quarantine. Business and trade in vibrant, thriving cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro ground to a halt. World-famous beaches, still bathed in summer sunshine, were emptied and closed.
“Some people will die, they will die, that’s life.”
The president attacked those preventative measures as harmful to the economy. He warned that these steps — the “cure” — could be worse than the disease and urged Brazilians to return to work. “Some people will die, they will die, that’s life,” he said.
Yet, as public pressure grew, and Bolsonaro grew increasingly isolated politically, he changed his tone on a televised address to the nation.
“We’re facing the biggest challenge of our generation,” he proclaimed. He appealed for unity in facing the threat. He still didn’t endorse the efforts put in place to halt the spread of the virus, though.
And in any case, some say the damage was already done.
“Unfortunately, there were some words spoken by public entities and the president of [the] republic, which belittled the risk.”
“Unfortunately, there were some words spoken by public entities and the president of [the] republic, which belittled the risk,” said Fernando Spilki, president of the Brazilian Virology Society.
That has trickle-down effects in terms of how the country responds to COVID-19.
“It’s difficult to measure, but this attitude influenced a lot of Brazilians. Many people still believe that we’re exaggerating the risk in some way.”
A recent survey found that 28% of Brazilians weren’t strictly self-isolating, with a small percentage carrying on with their lives as usual. In the same poll, 35% said they only had a small chance of becoming infected with the disease, and 16% believed there was no chance at all.
Brazil faces further compounding problems. While the Northern Hemisphere hopes for some respite brought on by warmer weather, the arrival of winter in the southern part of the globe could exacerbate the situation.
Temperatures are already dropping in Brazil and will fall sharply toward the end of April and beginning of May.
“That could mean the number of cases may stay very high, and the virus could be helped along by the climate,” Spilki explained. “It will be more difficult for people to stay in open environments, even getting basic items — people are going to be grouped closer together.”
Colder temperatures will be particularly pronounced in the southern regions of the country, where the majority of cases are concentrated. In Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, there is a large population of elderly residents — a demographic at higher risk of developing severe cases of COVID-19.
This year has seen an alarming number of dengue fever cases. The country is bracing for a particularly strong influenza season, too.
Scientists and epidemiological modelers fear the peaks of these infectious diseases could cross over at the end of the month, putting the country’s fragile public health system under a huge strain.
“We still haven’t arrived at the coldest part of the year, which normally for us is a very intense period for respiratory problems. Sometimes, it lasts until August.”
Brazil is a huge country, with a population of around 210 million. Spilki says it’s unlikely the country will ever reach the extensive testing capabilities of others like South Korea, so the true number of cases may never be known.
Brazil, like many countries, is struggling to secure enough chemical reagents needed to carry out testing.
“We’re not testing everybody because we don’t have enough tests to do it, enough labs to do the tests, and trained personnel to conduct the tests.”
“We’re not testing everybody because we don’t have enough tests to do it, enough labs to do the tests and trained personnel to conduct the tests,” said Luciana Costa, deputy director of the Institute of Microbiology at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro.
Costa is coordinating testing at the university, and is also part of the national effort to research the new coronavirus, to understand better how it spreads. Scientists here are trying to figure out how to stop its replication.
Yet, Costa says funding cuts have also affected the efforts by universities around the country. One impact is that Brazil has far fewer high-security labs needed to carry out such sensitive research.
“We’re also fighting against all of the cuts that we’ve had over time,” she said.
A fresh round of cuts announced in March this year targeted many students around the country who were already researching the new coronavirus. Meanwhile, the virus continues to spread around the country, with other hot spots developing in the northeast and the Amazon. Experts believe the virus will peak in the country within a few weeks.
Bolsonaro seems to think overwise. In a live Easter broadcast on April 12, he suggested that the coronavirus is already on its way out of Brazil. “It seems this issue of the virus is starting to go away, but the issue of unemployment is arriving and hitting hard,” he said.
Bolsonaro’s rejection of science comes at a time when the country needs it most. In a few months, the results of this experiment will become clear.