Brazil strains at quarantine as virus cases pass five million

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Dozens of people converged on the cobblestone streets of downtown Rio de Janeiro for its traditional Pedra do Sal samba party — the first since the pandemic began — and it seemed Brazil was returning to normal.

Among those dancing on Monday were Luana Jatobá and two friends, all of whom overcame COVID-19. As a nurse technician caring for coronavirus patients, she knows better than most that occupancy rates at Rio’s intensive-care units have surged as the city’s seven-day average number of cases reaches its highest level since June.

But, she said, everyone is desperate for a respite from the gloom.

“We take care of the people who are sick with COVID, but something that isn’t discussed is that there’s a very serious disease all over the world, which is depression,” said Jatobá. “After confinement, this samba circle is really to rescue those who felt downbeat and were oppressed. It’s not just the virus that kills.”

Brazilians, like many across the world, are burned out on quarantine. The somewhat slower pace of COVID-19’s spread, combined with less media coverage after it moved beyond Brazil’s two biggest cities, has helped people put the disease out of mind. But it continues to rip through Latin America’s largest country, and mayors — many of whom aren’t keen to keep restrictions in place ahead of November elections — are re-opening their cities.

And experts are warning of a possible second wave.

At its height, Brazil was registering more than 45,000 cases and 1,000 deaths per day. Those totals took the shape of a months-long plateau, unlike most other countries whose viral curves had defined peaks. While Brazil’s figures have fallen to about 27,000 cases and 700 deaths daily — significant improvement, clearly — they’re still nothing to sneeze at.

Brazil surpassed five million confirmed cases on Wednesday night and is verging on 150,000 dead, the second-most in the world, according to the tally from Johns Hopkins University.

“People thought it is unacceptable that 1,000 people were dying every day two months ago, and now they are fine with 700 people dying every day. It simply doesn’t make any sense,” said Epidemiologist Pedro Hallal, who coordinates the Federal University of Pelotas’ testing programme, by far the country’s most comprehensive. “We can say the worst part of the first wave is done, and now obviously we need to continue to be monitoring to see if numbers go up again.”

Hallal added that a second wave of infections is unlikely this year, because of how long Brazil’s crest lasted, but that tens of millions remain susceptible. As such, a second wave is “very likely” in 2021, he said.

The University of Miami’s observatory for COVID-19 in the Americas indicates that, at Brazil’s state level, the number of policies adopted to counter infection has fallen to the third-lowest in the region, behind Nicaragua, which declined to muster any meaningful response, and Uruguay, where virus incidence is among the world’s lowest.

The phenomenon is visible in Brazil’s cities, too, as campaigning mayors allow restaurants and movie theatres to re-open, encouraging people to emerge from quarantine. Brazil’s statistics institute released data last week showing that the percentage of people in strict isolation or leaving home only when necessary dropped to 57 per cent in mid-September, from 68 per cent in early July.