So Paulo – Bars in Brazil’s biggest metropolis Sao Paulo are full again for Friday and lawmakers in the capital have virtually ended video sessions via Zoom. Rio de Janeiro’s beaches are packed and the calls for strict social distancing seem to be a memory.
These developments are part of Brazil’s bid to return to pre-pandemic normalcy, even as its death toll topped 600,000, according to official figures from the health ministry on Friday. The relief has been particularly welcome in both COVID-19 cases and deaths, given experts’ warnings that the delta variant will cause another wave of destruction in the country with the second-highest number of victims. So far this has not happened.
- Newsletter sign-up: Get the COVID-19 brief sent to your inbox
The average daily death toll in the country has hovered around 500 for a month, down sharply from more than 3,000 in April. About 45% of the population has been fully vaccinated, and the elderly are being given a booster shot. According to Our World in Data, an online research site, a greater percentage of Brazilians are at least partially vaccinated than Americans or Germans.
Reforms have encouraged mayors and governors to accept fans at soccer matches, and have allowed bars and restaurants to remain open until the early morning. Some are even considering scrapping the mask mandate, which people often overlook beforehand. And Rio’s mayor has announced plans to bring back the city’s huge New Year’s Eve party on Copacabana beach.
Gonzalo Vesina, a professor of public health at the University of So Paulo, told the Associated Press in July that Delta, which is more contagious, would see “a new explosion” of cases within weeks. He was hardly the only one among the experts sounding the alarm.
Now, Vesina believes the high number of Brazilians infected with the gamma variant earlier this year – first identified in the Amazonian city of Manaus – may have slowed the delta’s progress.
“This is not a conclusion from a study; it is a possibility that we are raising in the face of what we are seeing,” Vesina said. “We are seeing a delta increase in countries that have reopened in the same way as Brazil, and our number of cases is still going down, with a few specific exceptions.”
Some analysts are concerned about the possibility of Delta spreading. Among them is Miguel Lago, executive director of Brazil’s Institute for Health Policy Studies, which advises public health officials. He believes the authorities are taking a considerable risk by announcing too many reopenings and gatherings, and that there could soon be more hospitalizations in Brazil.
“The epidemic has subsided, but 500 deaths per day is not good. And we don’t have a fully vaccinated half of the population,” Lago said. “We just don’t know enough and we have this terrible milestone to contemplate right now.”
On Friday morning, in Copacabana, where Rio’s New Year’s party will take place less than three months later, activist group Rio da Paz held a memorial on its sands to mourn the 600,000 dead, with hundreds of white handkerchiefs hanging on lines Had happened.
Across the city, at a support group for family members of virus victims, Bruna Chaves mourned the loss of her mother and stepfather.
“It is not just 600,000 people who are gone; It’s a lot of people who die with them emotionally,” Chaves said in an interview. “It’s absurd that people treat it like a small number. It’s a huge number.”
Many in Brazil continue to downplay the severity of the pandemic, chief among them President Jair Bolsonaro, whose popularity has waned largely because of his government’s chaotic pandemic response. But he hasn’t shied away from his positions, which include staunch support for drugs that have been proven ineffective against the virus, such as hydroxychloroquine.
He also continued to criticize restrictions on activity adopted by mayors and governors, saying Brazil needed to keep the economy humming to avoid worse hardship on the poor. On Thursday night, during a live broadcast on Facebook, he featured a series of newspaper articles reporting the economic turmoil in Europe and the US last year in an attempt to prove he was always right.
According to Mayor Eduardo Paes, months after New Year’s celebrations, Rio will also host a carnival. And he said social distancing is out of the question.
“It would be ridiculous, asking people to stay a meter away. If that was the case, I would be the first one to disrespect it,” he told residents of a middle-class neighborhood on Monday. “Science has advanced, it has won, it is allowing us to open up.”
Brazil’s long history with vaccination campaigns has played an important role in slowing the spread of the virus, along with its wide spread. Nearly three-quarters of Brazilians have received at least one dose by now – despite the fact that Bolsonaro spent months sowing doubts about its efficacy and himself remained unconvinced. Even most of his supporters rolled up their sleeves.
As Brazil surpasses 600,000 deaths, a Senate inquiry into the government’s handling of the pandemic is nearing its end. Sen. Renan Calheiros, who wrote the final report of the investigation, told reporters on Wednesday that it would include recommending at least 40 people to face charges, including Bolsonaro, his former health minister General Eduardo Pazuelo and several aides.
Luiz Davidovich, president of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, said the scientists did their part in alerting Brazilians to the dangers of the pandemic, but their advice should have been heeded better.
“What is left now is the memory of the tragedy that plagues the history of the country and our lives in a collective mourning, rife with sadness and outrage,” Davydovich said.
AP video journalist Lucas Dumphres from Rio de Janeiro contributed.