The World Health Organization is holding up Brazil’s catastrophic situation as a warning to the rest of the world about what can happen if the coronavirus is not kept in check.
(CN) — After several weeks of declining deaths and infections globally, the world is seeing signs of a potential resurgence in the pandemic with a rise in new infections in recent days.
A slight uptick in cases is being reported in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and parts of Asia, according to World Health Organization figures. The United Nations health agency attributed the rise in infections to the spread of more contagious strains of the deadly virus and the relaxing of measures to stem contagion while people let their guard down as vaccines offer a sense of hope.
In the past week, 62,336 deaths were linked to Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, bringing the total global death toll to nearly 2.6 million. The actual toll is likely much higher because many deaths caused by the virus may go unrecorded as such. For example, on Friday Russia’s official statistics agency, Rosstat, published data showing that about 394,000 more people than usual died in Russia between when the pandemic began in early 2020 and the end of January. Officially, Russia has reported more than 88,000 deaths from the pandemic.
On Friday, the WHO said it was particularly worried about Brazil and said it needs to take urgent steps to stop the spread of the virus for both its own good and for the sake of the world.
“The situation in Brazil is very, very concerning,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, at a news briefing at the agency’s Geneva headquarters. “The public health measures that Brazil takes should be aggressive while also rolling out vaccines.”
The agency’s warnings about Brazil came a day after Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro caused more controversy and outrage when he told Brazilians to stop “fussing and whining” about the pandemic. He made the comments to supporters in the midwestern state of Goiás, where about 9,000 people have died from the virus.
Since the start of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has dismissed the virus as harmless – a “little flu” – and he’s spoken out against lockdowns and other measures to stem the virus. The far-right politician is adamantly pro-business.
His cavalier, non-scientific attitude is blamed for causing one of the worst outbreaks in the world. Scientists now are worried that the out-of-control outbreak in Brazil has brought into existence a new strain – classified as the P.1 variant – that is more contagious, more deadly and resistant to the current crop of vaccines being distributed around the globe.
Unlike other parts of the world hit hard by the virus, such as the United States, India and Europe, Brazil has failed to rein in the virus. Since November, the number of new cases and deaths has continued to grow.
“If Brazil is not serious, then it will continue to affect all the neighborhood there and beyond,” Tedros said. “So, this is not just about Brazil, I think it’s about the whole Latin America and even beyond.”
The P.1 strain has been found in many other parts of the world, causing alarm due to its potential to spread more easily and also make vaccines less effective.
At the start of November, Brazil was reporting about 114,000 new weekly infections and that number has reached about 374,000 new cases each week, Tedros said. Similarly, the number of deaths each week at the start of November stood at about 2,540 and now about 8,000 Brazilians are dying a week, he said. Brazil’s death toll stands at more than 261,180, the second highest after the U.S., where about 533,850 deaths have been recorded.
Between Tuesday and Thursday, Brazil registered its deadliest days yet in the pandemic. Wednesday was the bleakest when 1,840 new deaths were added to the tally.
Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO chief of emergencies, said that while Brazil’s hotspot in the state of Amazonas is showing some improvement, other parts of the country are seeing their own outbreaks. There are reports of health systems in Brazil at the brink as intensive care units fill up.
Ryan said he was worried that governments and people are feeling a false sense of safety due to the distribution of vaccines.
“The arrival of vaccine is a moment of great hope. But it’s also potentially a moment where we lose concentration,” he said. “If I think I’m going to get a vaccine, maybe in the next few weeks or the next six weeks or the next two months, maybe I’m not so careful anymore. Maybe I think, ‘I’m through this.’”
He said that attitude is extremely dangerous.
“You don’t need a whole lot of people start thinking like that that we give the virus opportunities to spread,” Ryan said. “Small changes in the behavior of a large number of people can lead to huge changes in the epidemiology of this virus.”
He linked a relaxation of safety measures during the Christmas period to a deadly spike in infections and deaths in Europe and elsewhere afterward.
“Now is not the time for Brazil or anywhere else for that matter to be relaxing,” Ryan said. “The story in Brazil can be, and will be, repeated elsewhere if we stop implementing the measures as we need to implement them.”
Ryan said countries need to be careful about lifting restrictions and that before they do they need to be pushing ahead with a robust vaccination program and have in place strong systems for finding and tracking infected people.
A debate is raging in the U.S. over the lifting of restrictions after Texas Governor Greg Abbott this week lifted a mask mandate, prompting U.S. President Joe Biden to blast his decision as “Neanderthal thinking.”
European nations, meanwhile, are also slowly easing restrictions as vaccines are pushed out. The lifting of restrictions is seen by many as crucial as businesses of all sizes close, the ranks of the unemployed grow and people suffer stress and depression after extended lockdowns.
“I really am very concerned that all of us – governments and individuals alike – think in some ways, psychologically, and I understand what’s driving this, we think we’re through this,” Ryan said. “We’re not. And countries are going to lurch back into third and fourth surges if we’re not careful. I hate to be the party pooper here, but that’s unfortunately the way I see it.”
He added: “We should not waste the hope that vaccines bring. We should not waste the precious gift that vaccines will bring by dropping our guard in other areas.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.