People stand next to offerings during a ceremony in honor of Yemanja, the goddess of the sea, which is part of New Year's celebrations to plea for relief from the coronavirus pandemic and asks for a better new year at Praia Vermelha beach in Rio de Janeir

Brazilians flock to the coast during the height of tourist season while coronavirus cases surge

Last week, there were more than a thousand deaths three days in a row in Brazil. The death rate is expected to hit 200,000 this week, second only to the United States.

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People stand next to offerings during a ceremony in honor of Yemanja, the goddess of the sea, which is part of New Year's celebrations to plea for relief from the coronavirus pandemic and asks for a better new year at Praia Vermelha beach in Rio de Janeiro, Dec. 31, 2020.

Credit:

Bruna Prado/The World 

On a warm, summer morning last week, under a crystal-clear sky, Lui de Barros and his wife walked onto the rather remote Açores beach on the island of Florianopolis, Brazil.

They arrived early to beat the crowds and set up their beach chairs and big, orange umbrella far from the clusters of beachgoers already arriving across the hot sand.

Related: China OKs first homegrown vaccine as COVID-19 surges globally

Brazil is well into its second wave of the coronavirus, with rising numbers of cases and deaths. Nevertheless, tourists flocked to the coast at the end of the year for one of the country’s biggest tourist seasons.

De Barros is concerned about the arriving tourists and the lack of social restrictions. He’s had family members who have caught the virus.

“People are going to restaurants, they are going to gyms, and to parties, which is just unthinkable.”

Lui de Barros, Florianopolis, Brazil

“People are going to restaurants, they are going to gyms, and to parties, which is just unthinkable,” de Barros said. “It’s controversial that we are at the beach and saying this. But we’ve tried to do what we can to maintain a healthy social distance so we can enjoy the sun a little, without hurting others.”

Related: Brazil needs China's shot but Bolsonaro prefers Oxford jab

Not everyone is taking such precautions against the spread of COVID-19 — Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro among them. On New Year's Day, Bolsonaro swam in to meet a huge crowd of supporters in Praia Grande, São Paulo.

In a video posted on his Facebook page, he dives into the water with several security guards from a boat just off the coast. Supporters cheer. They’re in the water in front of him, stretched out along the beach. The crowd is huge. No masks. He swims toward them. They amass around him as he arrives, chanting his nickname: Mito, or Legend.

It’s a near-perfect metaphor for Bolsonaro’s relationship with the pandemic — blatantly disregarding social distancing as cases spike.

Last week, there were more than a thousand deaths three days in a row in Brazil. The death rate is expected to hit 200,000 this week, second only to the United States.

But it hasn’t dampened the holiday vacations in Brazil. Beaches have been packed. Even as some official New Year’s celebrations were canceled or toned down, it didn’t stop the parties.

In this video shared on Twitter, a crowd of hundreds of partygoers dances before a huge sound system in the early dawn. All-night, end-of-year parties and raves like this were held at beaches up and down the coast.

 

Researchers say the forecast for the pandemic in Brazil is not good.

Related: Bolsonaro loses big in Brazil's local elections

“We are seeing that in January and February, the situation is going to get worse. Deaths are going to increase. We now have a greater number of cases than what we had in August and September, which we thought had been the highest peak,” said Larissa Brussa, a biotechnologist who is finishing her PhD in genetics and molecular biology at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul.

“People have lost their fear of the pandemic. So, they are increasingly doing what they should not.”

Larissa Brussa, Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul

“People have lost their fear of the pandemic. So, they are increasingly doing what they should not.”

Local governments have also been reluctant to mandate greater restrictions and miss out on the high tourist season. The state of Santa Catarina, where Florianopolis is located, has permitted hotels to run at full capacity, despite rising cases and legal action from state prosecutors.

“The problem is that the federal government is not handing down clear direction, so the governors of each state end up having to decide alone, and often, they don’t make the most adequate decision,” Brussa said. “That creates confusion, and it also destroys the population’s confidence in the authorities.”

The same confusion is playing out over COVID-19 vaccines. Despite a long history of leading Latin America in science and health, Brazil has yet to approve a vaccine. The federal government still has no official start date for its vaccination campaign.

Related: COVID-19 hits Brazilian families dealing with Zika especially hard

Some Brazilians don’t want one. On Dec. 22, small groups of Bolsonaro supporters protested in several cities against a Supreme Court decision mandating COVID-19 vaccines for all Brazilians.

Bolsonaro has repeatedly said he would not be getting a vaccine because he already had the virus. During a recent speech, he made comical claims about the effects the vaccinations could have on the body.

“If you turn into a crocodile, it’s your problem,” Bolsonaro said. “If women grow beards and men start to talk with high voices, the pharmaceutical companies say it’s not their fault. There is nothing worse than messing with people’s immunological systems.”

Mellanie Fontes-Dutra is a biochemist, and one of the coordinators of the COVID-19 Analysis Network, an interdisciplinary group of Brazilian researchers created in the beginning of the pandemic to analyze the coronavirus crisis. Fontes-Dutra says Bolsonaro and other leaders are playing politics — while they should be taking action.

“Everyone in the world is looking for batches of vaccines from these companies that have been approved and the longer we wait to close these agreements, the further back in the line we will end up.” 

Mellanie Fontes-Dutra, COVID-19 Analysis Network

“Everyone in the world is looking for batches of vaccines from these companies that have been approved and the longer we wait to close these agreements, the further back in the line we will end up,” she said.

Some Brazilian states have pushed forward with their own vaccination plans, infuriating Bolsonaro. São Paulo Gov. João Doria has already acquired nearly 11 million doses of the CoronaVac vaccine from the Chinese company Sinovac. The state says it plans to start vaccinating in three weeks. But CoronaVac has yet to be approved by the federal health regulatory agency, Anvisa.

Meanwhile, during his end-of-the-year Facebook Live event last week, Bolsonaro again minimized the pandemic, attacked journalists, and encouraged the use of the unproven antimalarial drug chloroquine, which he said would be cheaper than vaccinations.

According to a December poll, almost three-quarters of the country say they want to be vaccinated, but that figure is down from almost 90% in August.

New Year’s celebrations are over, and carnival has been postponed in Rio de Janeiro for the first time in 100 years. But the country is just now heading into summer. And despite growing cases, lockdowns and harsh social restrictions are but a distant memory.

Brazilians are likely to feel the impact in the coming months.

“The statistics are very clear. If you increase the mobility of the people, the number of cases will increase. And if you have an increase in the number of cases, there will be an increase in the number of deaths,” Isaac Schrarstzhaupt, also a researcher with the COVID-19 Analysis Network said, adding that “1,000 deaths a day is going to appear small.”

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