These scenes are now being repeated across Brazil, where authorities are working day and night to bury the dead, with experts warning that the country’s funeral services could be the next to collapse.
Since the start of the year, a second uncontrollable wave has pushed Brazil beyond the 300,000 dead mark. As the country continues to take grim steps – a record 4,247 dead as of Thursday alone – the entire South American nation is now the global epicenter of COVID-19, experts warning 5,000 Brazilians could lose their lives in one day in April.
Much of the fear is directed to the P1 variant, linked to the Brazilian Amazon. If Brazil cannot control its high transmission rate, experts fear the country’s health tragedy could put the world at risk. If the virus is allowed to circulate freely, it could create the perfect breeding ground for new, even more deadly variants.
Brazil’s neighbors have sealed off their borders with the country in a desperate attempt to prevent new variants from bleeding into the rest of the continent and hamper the effectiveness of vaccines.
“We are very worried. The staggering number of deaths in Brazil in just a few months is our greatest concern, ”virologist and researcher Humberto Debat, National Institute of Agricultural Technology, told Al Jazeera.
Bolsonaro’s catastrophic response
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is increasingly accused of undermining the severity of the virus.
Even in the darkest hour of the pandemic, far-right leader continues to ignore calls from health officials for a nationwide lockdown, attacks use of masks, ignores science, peddles unproven cures and told Brazilians this week: “There is no point in crying over spilled milk,” referring to the skyrocketing death toll in Brazil.
“Unfortunately, we have a denialist president who refuses to follow science and encourages the public to follow,” said Ethel Maciel, professor at the Federal University of São Paulo.
No social distancing
Experts said the lack of social distancing measures created the perfect environment for the variants to mutate.
Since June 2020, infections and deaths in Brazil have stagnated at a constant plateau of around 1,000 deaths per day, leading many to believe the worst is over. For months, Brazilians commuted on crowded public transport and filled its beaches, bars and nightclubs.
As the Brazilians continued to flout containment measures, the P1 variant hatched, which is believed to have emerged in the Brazilian Amazon at the end of 2020. Weeks later, Manaus’ health system had all but collapsed.
According to the Fiocruz research institute, the P1 variant now accounts for more than 80% of cases in populated states, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. Three months ago it was 0%.
A time bomb
Officials and experts are concerned about the speed at which the possibly more contagious P1 variant is spreading and the damage it could cause globally.
“The virus has become ‘synchronized’ across the country, with intensive care units in several states at over 90% capacity,” said epidemiologist Daniel Villela of the Fiocruz branch in Rio de Janeiro.
As Brazil’s healthcare system crumbles, with intubation drugs and extremely low oxygen stocks, Villela also told Al Jazeera that oversaturated hospitals are causing more deaths.
Meanwhile, the painfully slow rollout of the vaccine in Brazil, the result of Bolsonaro’s disorganization and lack of urgency, is worrying. To date, less than 10 percent of Brazil’s 212 million people have been vaccinated.
“The only way out is to speed up our vaccination campaign and nationally coordinated COVID protocols,” Villela explained.
But after Bolsonaro refused to implement a nationwide lockdown on Wednesday, experts fear transmission rates will continue to skyrocket.
“The P1 variant is serious. Brazil could also create new variants that are even more dangerous. The more people there are infected with the virus, the more mutations we will see, ”epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, senior associate at the Federation of American Scientists, told Al Jazeera.
Despite promising news on Wednesday of preliminary results from an ongoing study showing China’s Sinovac vaccine to be 50% effective against the P1 strain, experts have warned that the speed at which the virus mutates could be a disaster for campaigns. current vaccination.
“The 4,000 Brazilian deaths on Tuesday show that the virus circulates in large quantities, mutates and evolves rapidly. He’s trying to find a way to escape natural antibodies, ”said Felipe Naveca, virologist at Fiocruz Amazonas.
“It is a nuclear reactor which has set off a chain reaction and which is out of control,” Miguel Nicolelis, a Brazilian doctor and professor at Duke University in the United States, told Reuters news agency this week.
“We desperately need to prevent it from spreading to Brazil and other countries with high transmission rates,” Naveca said.
“How many more lives will we have to lose?
The Brazilian crisis is now being felt well beyond its borders. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) reported that the P1 variant caused the second wave in at least 15 countries in the Americas.
Once championed as a child of the COVID poster in Latin America, Uruguay is now grappling with an explosive wave of deaths. According to government data, the 121 COVID deaths recorded in April exceeded last year’s total COVID deaths.
“Uruguay is a good example of how things could quickly deteriorate,” said Argentinian virologist Debat, who monitors the genomic sequences of the variants of concern.
The P1 variant has also been detected in Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, Peru and Chile, as well as Canada and the United States.
Experts say sealing their borders will have little effect now that worrying variants have entered.
“It’s too late to keep P1 away. But it’s also too late to build second wave immunity. Only 40% of Argentines over 70 received their first dose. However, we are doing everything to delay it, ”explained Debat.
“How many lives will we have to lose before we get it under control?”