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Casualties Of Brazil's Latest COVID-19 Surge Fill Hospitals And Morgues

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

As the spread of vaccines brings hope to some countries, the pandemic in Brazil is getting worse. This week, for the first time, Brazil registered more than 4,000 daily deaths. That is close to the worst day ever in the United States, which has been the world leader in coronavirus infections and fatalities. Scientists say the transmission rate for the virus and its variants is accelerating there.

NPR's Philip Reeves is in Rio de Janeiro. Philip, good morning.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Wow. What's it like to be in Brazil right now?

REEVES: It's very, very sad, Steve, because we're witnessing a tragedy. Cases are surging. And unlike the first wave of the pandemic last year, this is happening across most of the country at the same time, which means health services are under enormous strain. You know, in some places, people are dying waiting for intensive care beds because the IC units are already full. There's a report out this morning I've just been reading that hospitals in 1,000 municipalities are worried that they'll soon run out of oxygen.

INSKEEP: Wow.

REEVES: And towns and cities, they're running out of places to bury people. So a lot of governors and mayors are trying to slow the virus down by imposing restrictions. I mean, here in Rio, beaches - a lot of places are closing. Beaches are shut. You can't get swimming. But a lot of people are breaking the rules, so many in the medical, scientific community are now calling for a much more rigorous nationwide 14-day lockdown right now. Here's what the president, Jair Bolsonaro, had to say about that yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: So he's saying, "we're not going to accept the politics of staying at home, of closing everything and locking down because" he says, "the virus is never going away."

He's still insisting that poverty and hunger will do more harm than COVID. But Brazil now has 340,000 registered deaths. That's the world's second-highest toll after the U.S. And researchers who are tracking COVID here reckon Brazil will, in fact, surpass the U.S. soon. So Bolsonaro's argument is getting harder for him to make.

INSKEEP: First word in his statement was no, which translates in quite a few languages and epitomizes his approach to this pandemic. But if he's not going to lock down the country, what is he going to do?

REEVES: Well, you remember he was very dismissive of vaccines until quite recently. He used to suggest that there could be nasty side effects. And you know, he said he'd never take the shot himself. But he has changed his tune. He's saying his government's made every effort to get vaccines to Brazil, forgetting to mention how he canceled one order simply because it was from China. He's been taking a lot of flak from big business and Congress over this. People are accusing him of turning Brazil into a kind of an international pariah, and that's made it harder for Brazil to buy in vaccines.

As a result, they say, so far, only 13% of Brazilians have had a first dose. There is still supply problems. In Brasilia, the capital, yesterday, they had to suspend vaccines because they ran out. However, overall, the pace is picking up a bit after a very slow start.

INSKEEP: Does the president pay any particular political price for the way he has handled or mishandled the pandemic?

REEVES: Well, he's becoming more unpopular, and he is under a tremendous amount of pressure from various groups, so that means he is becoming weaker. But he still has this hard core - estimated by people here at around 20% - who continue to join him in opposition to lockdowns and restrictions and continue to insist that his version of events, even though it's awash with fake news, is the correct version of events here in Brazil.

INSKEEP: Philip, thanks for the update.

REEVES: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.