Pandemic Surges in Europe, Brazil Suffers Deadliest Month

The coronavirus pandemic is escalating again as the world sees an increase in cases for the fifth week in a row. Brazil suffered its worst month yet and Europe is struggling to contain the virus.

Residents wait in line for food donated by the Bees of Love Institute in the Rocinha slum of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on Thursday. (AP Silvia Izquierdo)

(CN) — The coronavirus pandemic is worsening in hot spots around the world, with Brazil reporting record death tolls and the World Health Organization criticizing Europe for its slow rollout of vaccines.

For the fifth week in a row, the world is seeing a rise in infections with more than 4 million new cases detected in the past week, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Deaths are on the rise too with 71,708 fatalities reported in the past week, Johns Hopkins data shows, about 20,000 fewer weekly deaths than during the pandemic’s most deadly phase between January and February.

The global death toll officially stands at about 2.8 million, but it has surpassed 3 million when fatalities not counted as Covid-19 deaths are added. Russia and Mexico have both said their death tolls are much higher than what has been officially recorded.

Brazil is suffering the most and hit a new grim record on Wednesday when 3,869 deaths were tallied, bringing its total toll to more than 321,880, the second-highest in the world after the more than 565,300 deaths linked to Covid-19 in the United States.

The U.S. continues to register lots of deaths with 1,115 fatalities reported on Wednesday. Still, with vaccination well under way, the U.S. appears to have the virus under much better control. It’s reporting about 65,000 new infections on average a day, still one of the highest amounts in the world.

It’s a very different story in the European Union, where a third wave has hit, causing a new round of misery and economic shock. On Wednesday, French President Emmanuel Macron imposed a third nationwide lockdown to get the virus under control in what has become Europe’s most worrisome hot spot. The EU’s troubles are compounded by a sluggish rollout of vaccines and shortages in doses.

On Wednesday, more than 188,000 new cases were detected across the 27-member bloc and about 2,825 new deaths were caused by the virus, bringing the death toll to more than 610,455 in the EU, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. About 447.7 million people live in the EU and only about 11% of them have received a vaccine shot. By comparison, about 29% of Americans have been vaccinated and 45% of residents in the United Kingdom.

“Vaccines present our best way out of this pandemic. Not only do they work, they are also highly effective in preventing infection. However, the rollout of these vaccines is unacceptably slow,” said Dr. Hans Kluge, the head of the WHO’s Europe office, during a news briefing on Thursday. “Let me be clear: we must speed up the process by ramping up manufacturing, reducing barriers to administering vaccines, and using every single vial we have in stock, now.”

Still worse is the situation in Brazil.

March was the deadliest month yet for South America’s largest country with 66,573 deaths, and there are fears that it will only get worse. The surge in disease is mostly blamed on a more contagious and dangerous strain of the virus that emerged in Brazil, known as the P1 variant. Adding to fears is the approach of colder months in the Southern Hemisphere.

But far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s reckless handling of the pandemic is viewed as the main reason for Brazil’s tragedy. He continues to resist restrictions, mocking the virulence of coronavirus and asserting the economy must not be shut down. This week, his top military leaders resigned, plunging his presidency into a deep political crisis.

Brazil’s explosive outbreak is being called a global health threat by scientists worried the out-of-control situation will breed new, more dangerous mutations of the virus. This week, Brazilian scientists said they had detected a new strain similar to another more contagious mutation that emerged in South Africa.

“There is a very serious situation going on in Brazil right now where we have a number of states that are in critical condition,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the pandemic, during a news briefing at the agency’s Geneva headquarters on Thursday. “Nationwide, the hospitals are overwhelmed with most ICUs at over 90% capacity.”

She said Brazilian health officials estimate that more than 6,000 people with Covid-19 are waiting to be admitted to intensive care units. She said the P1 variant is the dominant strain in half of Brazil’s 27 federal states.

Brazil is also seeing an alarming increase in the number of younger people needing hospitalization.

“We do see that hospitalizations and ICU are increasing across all age groups, including younger age groups between 20 and 60 years old,” Van Kerkhove said.

Vaccinations have begun in Brazil, but the inoculation effort is moving slowly with only about 8% of its 213 million people having received a shot. Brazil is using a Chinese vaccine and receiving doses through a WHO global vaccine drive known as Covax. It is also seeking to ramp up vaccine production within Brazil.

“Local production of vaccines is very important right now in Brazil,” said Dr. Mariangela Simao, a Brazilian and assistant director-general at the WHO. “This is essential right now considering the pressure that is being put on supplies of vaccines.”

But she said Brazil, like everywhere else, cannot rely solely on vaccines to get the pandemic under control.

“We need to not just be placing all our bets on the availability of vaccines; even where there is greater vaccine coverage, it is also very important that the authorities say that it is necessary to still stick to prevention measures, such as avoiding crowded spaces, using masks, hand washing,” she said. “It is very important that we do not fall into a false sense of security regarding the quantity of vaccines.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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