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Brazil COVID-19 Cases Climb As Deaths Overwhelm Hospitals And Funeral Services


Brazil is taking over as the new global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. It has registered more than 284,000 deaths, the world's second highest number. More people are dying in Brazil every day than in the U.S. from the coronavirus. Infections are surging, overwhelming hospitals and funeral services. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, many fear that an even greater catastrophe is looming.


DIMAS URBAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: "Pay attention to what's happening," says Dimas Urban.


URBAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Our health service is collapsing. People are going to die." Urban is mayor of Pirassununga, a city in southeast Brazil. This is a video he's posted to try to persuade people to take precautions.


URBAN: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: The collapse Urban talks about is now threatening most of Brazil because of the worsening pandemic. IC units at close to full or overflowing, yet the government vaccination program's barely started, says Denise Garrett, an infectious disease specialist.

DENISE GARRETT: The vaccination is going really, really slow, although we do have the capacity and the infrastructure to do much better than what we are doing.

MAYANE BRITO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: Mayane Brito is a nurse who travels around northeast Brazil vaccinating people in remote villages. She says when she meets people...

BRITO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...She can see the joy in their eyes. Yet many are also worried.

BRITO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "There just aren't enough vaccines," says Brito. At present, Brazil only has two types - AstraZeneca and the Chinese-made CoronaVac.

MARGARETH DALCOLMO: These two ones are not sufficient to respond to the size, to the magnitude of the epidemic in Brazil now. We are missing more vaccines, more doses.

REEVES: That's Dr. Margareth Dalcolmo, a respiratory disease expert at Brazil's research institution, FIOCRUZ. Brazil's health ministry says it can get 560 million doses of various vaccines by the end of the year. Dalcolmo says that's too late.

DALCOLMO: We have to vaccinate the Brazilian population now, in this month, not waiting for the rest of the year - one year to vaccinate Brazil.

REEVES: Until vaccines start flowing in, Brazil only has one other weapon against COVID. Shutdowns and other social distancing measures are being imposed by governors and mayors. Some are desperately urging people this time to stick to the rules.


RUI COSTA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "What's more important," asks Rui Costa, governor of Bahia state, during a tearful TV appeal, "keeping a shop open for a couple of days or human lives?" Brazilians are divided.


REEVES: Supporters of the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro are protesting lockdowns by driving around the streets in giant convoys. Bolsonaro no longer calls COVID a little flu...


PRESIDENT JAIR BOLSONARO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: ...Yet he still insists shutting the economy causes more suffering than the virus. Brazil's doctors watch in dismay. Pedro Hallal says they're trying to head off a catastrophe that could spread to other countries.

PEDRO HALLAL: Brazil now represents a threat to global public health, in addition to obviously representing a threat to our own population.

REEVES: Hallal is one of Brazil's leading epidemiologists. Several variants of the virus are already circulating. Aloud fears other, more dangerous variants will emerge.

HALLAL: The virus is circulating so widely in Brazil that it is possible, and I would say likely, that new variants will appear in the near future.

REEVES: He's calling for an international taskforce, including pharmaceutical companies, to get vaccines to Brazil right now.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.