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Official death toll in Brazil approaches 500,000

Brazil looks set to become the second country to pass the devastating milestone of 500,000 deaths linked to COVID-19 with a relentless wave of infections showing no sign of slowing.

The Brazilian Health Ministry reported 98,832 new virus cases and 2,495 deaths for the past 24 hours on Friday.

The South American country has now registered 17,801,462 cases since the pandemic began, while the official death toll has risen to 498,499, according to ministry data, in the world’s third-worst outbreak outside the United States and India and its second-deadliest.

Brazil’s Senate is publicly investigating how the toll got so high, focusing on why President Jair Bolsonaro’s far-right government ignored opportunities to buy vaccines for months while it relentlessly pushed hydroxychloroquine, the malaria drug that rigorous studies have shown to be ineffective in treating COVID-19.

Over the past week, official data showed some 2,000 COVID-19 deaths per day in Brazil, representing one-fifth the global total, and a jump public health experts warn may reflect the start of the country’s third wave.

Dr Abdel Latif, head of ICU at Santa Casa de Valinhos Hospital, felt there was still a lack of guidance from authorities more than a year into the pandemic.

“Losing half a million lives in a battle against a sickness is serious. These are young people, parents, not just nameless numbers. Their stories are being buried,” Latif said.

Bolsonaro has waged a 15-month campaign to downplay the virus’s seriousness and keep the economy humming.

He dismissed the scourge early on as “a little flu” and has scorned masks.

Bolsonaro was not chastened by his own bout with COVID-19.

And he kept touting hydroxychloroquine long after virtually all others, including then-US President Donald Trump, ceased doing so.

As recently as last Sunday, Bolsonaro received cheers upon telling a crowd of supporters that he took it when infected.

“The next day,” he declared, “I was cured.”

The World Health Organization stopped testing the drug in June 2020, saying the data showed it didn’t reduce deaths among hospitalized patients or relieve moderate disease.

The Health Ministry is instead trumpeting the 82 million vaccine doses administered so far.

The number is mostly first shots; just 11% of Brazil’s population is fully vaccinated.