Brazil leads the world in the average number of new COVID-19 deaths, accounting for about one in every four reported each day.
The surge comes amid the outbreak of the P1 coronavirus variant first discovered in Brazil and inadequate social distancing requirements in the country.
The local variant, first detected in December 2020, is mutating in ways that could make it easier to evade antibodies, according to scientists. Studies have shown the variant to be as much as 2.5 times more contagious than the original coronavirus and more resistant to antibodies.
The country’s overall death toll is second only to the United States despite Brazil having two-thirds the population, and experts expect the nation could catch up to the U.S. as vaccinations curtail the outbreak in America while Brazil’s healthcare system faces major capacity issues.
A strained healthcare system
More than 80% of ICU beds in 24 of Brazil’s 26 states and its federal district were occupied as of March 15, 2021, according to the Brazilian public health research institution, Fiocruz.
ICU bed occupancy level
■ High: >80% ■ Medium: 60–80% ■ Low: <60%
The outbreak is also increasingly affecting younger people, with hospital data showing that last month the majority of those in intensive care were aged 40 or younger, according to a new report released by the Brazilian Association of Intensive Medicine (AMIB).
In addition to hospital capacity, new reports have surfaced of dwindling supplies to treat critically ill patients.
Brazil’s richest and most populous state, Sao Paulo, warned its ability to care for seriously ill COVID-19 patients was on the verge of collapse as it ran perilously low on key drugs, according to a letter to the federal government seen by the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.
The health minister, Marcelo Queiroga, said on Thursday Brazil is negotiating with other countries, including Spain, to receive emergency medications needed for intubated COVID-19 patients.
Latin American countries lead the world in excess mortality
Brazil’s surge comes amid a crisis that spans Latin America — cases are surging in nearly every country. Mortality rates show Latin American countries have suffered the most excess deaths — deaths above the average recorded in previous years — throughout the pandemic.
Among countries where data were available, five of the top 10 were Latin American nations cracked the top ten in terms of average percent excess mortality from January 2020–February 2021 (compared to the average death rate from 2015–2019):
Total % excess deaths reported, Jan. 2020 – Feb. 2021
A “failed response”
Brazil’s Senate has launched a probe into President Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, including downplaying the disease’s severity, promoting dubious treatments and repeatedly opposing social distancing measures.
Aid group Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said Brazil’s “failed response” had led to thousands of avoidable deaths and created a humanitarian catastrophe that could still get worse.