Brasilia: Brazil, the hardest-hit Latin American country in the coronavirus pandemic, passed the mark of 1,000 deaths on Friday, the health ministry said.
The ministry’s latest figures gave a toll of 19,638 confirmed COVID-19 cases, with 1,056 deaths — one fewer than it had indicated in an initial tally earlier in the day.
With a worldwide death toll of more than 100,000, Brazil’s figure is still relatively small compared to the number of deaths in countries such as Italy (more than 18,000), the United States (nearly 17,000) and Spain (nearly 16,000).
But health officials are bracing for things to get worse.
Experts predict the outbreak will only start to peak in Brazil toward late April.
There are fears for what that could mean in the country’s poorest areas, especially the favelas — crowded, impoverished slums in cities such as Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro that typically lack basic health and sanitation infrastructure.
President Jair Bolsonaro meanwhile faces a firestorm of criticism for downplaying COVID-19, calling it a “little flu” and the reaction to it “hysteria.”
The far-right leader has clashed with local and state authorities over their decisions to close non-essential businesses and tell people to remain home, which he says is needlessly wrecking the economy.
In his latest act of disregard for his own government’s recommendations on fighting the spread of the virus, he hit the streets of Brasilia on Friday to greet supporters.
Mingling with no face mask and apparently ignoring social distancing measures, he was particularly criticized for wiping his nose with his right hand at one point, then using it to shake hands with an elderly woman.
But he faces increasing political costs, as governors and local authorities largely ignore him to implement stay-at-home measures.
“Bolsonaro is politically isolated. He’s losing support across all social segments and has very few allies left in Congress or the judiciary,” said political analyst Sylvio Costa.
“Bolsonaro underestimated the pandemic,” he told AFP.
Disapproval of the president has risen amid the pandemic, according to recent opinion polls. He faces nightly protests by confined residents in Brazil’s biggest cities, who bang pots and pans from their windows, shouting “Get out, Bolsonaro!”
Approval has meanwhile surged for Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who has stood by international recommendations on taking aggressive measures to contain the new virus, braving criticism from his boss.
Mandetta’s approval rating for his handling of the crisis is at 76 percent, while Bolsonaro’s is at 33 percent, according to polling firm Datafolha last Friday.
The death toll in Brazil more than doubled in a week, from 432 on Saturday.
The hardest hit is Sao Paulo state, the country’s industrial hub and home to more than 44 million people — about the population of Spain.
It had 8,216 cases and 540 deaths, the health ministry said.
Rio de Janeiro state was next, with 2,464 cases and 147 deaths.
But experts warn the real number of cases is probably much higher, given limited testing capacity and a large backlog of samples.
Besides the threat to favelas, there are growing fears about what the pandemic will mean for Brazilian indigenous communities.
Indigenous peoples in the Amazon rainforest have historically been hit hard by diseases that are commonplace among other societies as their isolation has shielded them from germs against which much of the world has developed immunity.
But that experience is not necessarily an advantage and, in a worrying sign, a 15-year-old boy from the Yanomami tribe — a people known for its isolation and vulnerability to disease — died Thursday after contracting the virus.
“There is a major fear that this disease will arrive, cause an outbreak in (indigenous) communities and lead to mass genocide,” said Katia Brasil, editor at Amazonia Real news agency, which specializes in issues facing Amazonian peoples.
“This disease is very dangerous for us,” said Dario Yawarioma, a Yanomami leader.
“And it is getting closer.”