(Bloomberg) -- Brazil hit the 5-million mark for confirmed infections as mishmash quarantine measures continue to fade and the raging health crisis gives way to a fierce debate on how to support those hit by the pandemic-induced economic downturn.
The Latin American country reported 31,553 new cases Wednesday, pushing the total to 5,000,694. Deaths rose by 734 to 148,228, according to data from the health ministry. The real toll is likely much higher, according to health experts, due to a widespread shortage of testing.
“The number of 5 million is important, but it does not represent reality,” said Denise Garrett, epidemiologist and vice president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute. “I have no doubt that, even without overcoming the first wave, there will be a second wave in Brazil, unless there is government interference or people suddenly become more aware.”
Life across the Latin American country is mostly back to normal. Rio de Janeiro’s beaches are packed, Sao Paulo traffic is back and private schools have resumed classes in Brasilia. Sao Paulo, the country’s richest city and the epicenter of Brazil’s pandemic, is expected to progress to the next stage of reopening -- dubbed phase green -- later this week.
The country has also ramped up a push on vaccines, with four of them currently in phase three of trials involving over 30,000 people. Federal and local governments have partnerships with AstraZeneca, China’s SinoVac and the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. The health ministry recently joined a global initiative that gathers around 170 countries interested in vaccines recognized by the World Health Organization. Brazil’s participation in the alliance seeks to obtain 42 million doses of vaccine.
The lack of a national approach, a shortage of testing and a push to reopen before the virus receded helped turn the country into a global hotspot. The nation lags only the U.S. and India in infections, and ranks second in global deaths. On a per capita basis, Brazil trails Peru and Belgium for most deaths per million people, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
President Jair Bolsonaro pushed the scientifically-unproven drug hydroxychloroquine as a solution to the outbreak and criticized lockdown measures implemented by governors. Bolsonaro, who contracted the disease himself, argued from the start that the economic crisis that would follow would kill more people than the disease.
Read more: Bolsonaro’s Chloroquine Believers Hamstring Drugmakers in Brazil
The pandemic brought on the largest economic slump on record, a 11.4% decline in the second quarter from a year ago. While recent data have shown the economy is rebounding, the International Monetary Fund said this week that Brazil faces “exceptionally high and multifaceted” risks as it continues to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the country’s debt dynamics.
The pandemic aid, dubbed coronavoucher, is seen as the most important response from the federal government, helping keep millions of Brazilians afloat and even reducing extreme poverty rates. The program, which provided cash stipends to some 23 million people, helped avert a “deeper economic downturn, stabilized financial markets, and cushioned the effects of the pandemic on the poor,” the IMF said.
The program, which already cost $57 billion in cash and put the country on pace to a record annual budget gap, is set to end in December. Discussions on how to finance social spending going forward have been the source of public sparring between officials, leading the government to backtrack on proposals days after presenting them and rocking the nation’s financial markets.
Read more: Brazil Hands Out So Much Covid Cash That Poverty Nears a Low
Brazil, which had its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in late February, has seen consistently high numbers as the disease that started in rich cities spread to areas spared earlier in the pandemic. The regional differences made it harder to pinpoint when the virus would peak -- an already complicated task in a country of 210 million people, where some states are the size of France and where many live in poverty and can’t afford not to work.
Read more: How One of Brazil’s Largest Favelas Confronts Coronavirus
The pace of new infections has slowed since mid-August even as early hotspots like Rio de Janeiro and the Amazonian capital of Manaus see a jump in cases. After four weeks with over new 300,000 cases, national figures have been below 200,000 for most of the last month. The number of weekly deaths fell to 4,581, the lowest since May.
“The decline in the number of deaths and cases is reason for optimism, but it has to be considered with caution,” Garrett said. “In the U.S. -- where the curve is similar to Brazil’s -- we saw something similar: a drop, large gatherings, and a new increase. Everything depends on how the population responds to measures for the prevention and control of the disease.”
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