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Brazil COVID-19 Crisis: Inquiry Uncovers Government Negligence

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

In many parts of the United States, it can seem like the pandemic is just about over and things are maybe returning to normal. But it's a very different picture in Brazil. The South American country recently reached the grim milestone of 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. That's the second highest death toll in the world after the U.S. Last week, Brazil also set a new record with over 100,000 new daily coronavirus cases. Authorities there are also dealing with low oxygen supplies, a highly transmissible variant, and only 11% of the country being fully vaccinated.

Joining us now from Florianopolis, Brazil, is journalist Michael Fox. Welcome to the program, Michael.

MICHAEL FOX: Thanks so much.

MCCAMMON: How would you describe the state of Brazil's COVID crisis right now?

FOX: I think the best way to describe it is it's as if we're walking on a very thin tightrope. And it's not clear exactly if we're going to make it to the other side or how quickly we're going to make it to the other side. You know, people don't know, are we going to be able to vaccinate enough people in the coming days to ensure that cases don't continue to rise and the death count stays where it is? Or are we going to see a third wave, which is what many people have been talking about and many people are really concerned with?

MCCAMMON: How'd it get to this point? I mean, why are so few Brazilians vaccinated, for instance?

FOX: Everybody - most of the country is really pointing at President Jair Bolsonaro. You know, he's been spreading fake news for the longest time, pushing unproven drugs like hydroxychloroquine instead of, you know, really trying to push the vaccines. And, in fact, there is a Senate investigation that's been happening. And wrapped up in this, they've been looking at Bolsonaro's mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. And, in fact, they've seen - there were over 14 times which the Bolsonaro government failed to purchase or rejected offers to sell Brazil vaccines early on.

And that's something that people have been really talking about. That's just been disastrous for the country, and that's why the vaccination program has been so slow. And particularly, this is important for a country that has a long, long history and a very robust vaccination program, much better than all the rest of Latin America. And so, you know, it's really been just exasperating for so many Brazilians.

MCCAMMON: And as you've mentioned, President Bolsonaro has long been downplaying the seriousness of the pandemic. He called it a little flu, for example, and refused to be vaccinated despite getting COVID last summer. Now that there is this rising death toll there in Brazil, how is the government responding to that?

FOX: What's so shocking is the fact that it has just continued on the same tune. There really hasn't been a response or a mea culpa. In fact, he continues to blame governors for trying to push lockdown or social restriction measures. And this is why we're seeing such chaos in this country right now and why - you know, if there were greater social restrictions at the same time as increasing vaccines, then you might see decreasing cases and then decreasing deaths. But because we don't have that, that is not a policy from the federal government and has never been, then that's why we're seeing things potentially get out of control again.

MCCAMMON: Despite all of this, does Bolsonaro still have some measure of support?

FOX: Right. So he has 23%, according to the latest polls. His people are definitely with him, and they're with him until the very end. At the same time, he's been cozying up to more centrist figures in Congress and the Senate in order to shore up his own support in those areas in order to pass legislation but also ensure that there isn't an impeachment attempt against his own government.

MCCAMMON: That's Michael Fox, freelance journalist based in Brazil. Michael, thanks for sharing your reporting with us.

FOX: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.