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Brazil's Daily Coronavirus Death Toll Surpasses That of U.S.

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05/27/2020 | 07:44am EDT

By Jeffrey T. Lewis and Luciana Magalhaes

SÃO PAULO -- Brazil has reached a grim milestone, reporting more Covid-19 deaths in one day than the U.S., which until recently had logged the most daily fatalities from the disease.

Brazil's Health Ministry reported that 1,039 people had died from the disease caused by the new coronavirus in the 24 hours through Tuesday evening, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 592 deaths in the U.S. on the same day.

Though the U.S. has recorded 98,261 deaths from Covid-19 -- the most in the world -- its daily death count has trended downward in recent weeks. Brazil, meanwhile, has been trending in the opposite direction. Last week, the country averaged 935 deaths a day, with nearly 1,200 fatalities reported Thursday.

"We're especially worried about the number of new cases reported last week in Brazil, which was the highest record in a seven-day period since the outbreak began," Carissa Etienne, director of the Pan American Health Organization, said Tuesday.

Epidemiological models used by the organization show that daily deaths are growing exponentially, she said, with Brazil expected to log nearly 89,000 fatalities from Covid-19 by Aug. 4.

The fast rise in infections and deaths in Latin America's largest country prompted President Trump to ban the entry of foreign nationals who have been in Brazil within 14 days before trying to enter the U.S., with some exceptions, even though Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, is a close ally and has echoed the U.S. president's call for businesses to reopen.

This country of 210 million now has 24,512 confirmed deaths from Covid-19, the sixth-highest number in the world behind the U.S., the U.K., Italy, France and Spain. The University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates the death toll could be as high as 125,000 by early August.

The tally of daily deaths from Covid-19 has followed a generally consistent pattern around the world, with the figure declining about 50 days after the first death has been logged, according to Domingos Alves, a physicist specializing in health-care data at the Ribeirão Preto Medical School in São Paulo state. But though the first death in Brazil was reported March 17, there has been no downward trend.

Unlike the leaders of most South American countries, Mr. Bolsonaro has repeatedly played down the dangers of the coronavirus and called for a rapid reopening of businesses, clashing with the governors of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and other states that had ordered nonessential businesses closed. Mr. Bolsonaro also sparred with two health ministers over their policies; one was fired, and another resigned.

Mr. Alves and other scientists believe that because of a dearth of testing for the coronavirus in Brazil, the total number of people recorded as having died from Covid-19 has been undercounted by 40%. He said that several cities that have begun to reopen aren't ready to do so, risking fresh outbreaks.

"People don't know whom they should listen to," Mr. Alves said. "There's no scenario in Brazil that justifies talking about ending social isolation earlier."

Inloco, a Brazilian company which tracks location metrics via cellphone location data, said only 43.9% of Brazilians respected social-distancing rules as of Monday, down from the peak of 62.2% on March 22.

Many businesses are welcoming the activity.

"It was about time the businesses opened," said André Wagner, a food sales representative in Joinville, the biggest city in the southern state of Santa Catarina. "Trying to keep people at home doesn't work because they end up going out anyway. The human being was not made to be isolated."

Joinville Mayor Udo Döhler said that while businesses are opening, owners are taking steps to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Restaurants have increased the space between tables. Customers enter with masks, only taking them off to eat. The city, he said, is now almost back to normal, while other parts of the country grapple with the health crisis.

"Brazil isn't all the same, there are regions which are more prepared to deal with the problem and others less," he said.

Here in the country's economic engine, São Paulo, General Motors last week restarted production at its São Caetano do Sul plant after shutting down in March. The firm said it is ensuring worker safety. The temperatures of workers are taken at plant entrances, surfaces are cleaned and lunches are staggered with only one person permitted per table in the cafeteria.

Workers say that while they are concerned about contracting the virus and spreading it to their loved ones, they are happy to be back at work and pleased with the company's safety measures.

"They're being very rigid about all of the new rules. I think the measures they're taking are excellent," said Renato Oliveira, a 47-year-old plant worker.

Though he had once called for stringent measures to keep businesses closed, São Paulo Gov. João Doria said he is now looking to allow more businesses to gradually reopen, starting Monday.

"When possible, we will reopen the economy carefully," he said. "But we will only do it when we are confident that we are taking the right measure, at the right time, and at the right place."

If called for because of a sharp rise in infections, authorities could also tighten controls, he said. "We don't want to have corpses in the streets," Mr. Doria said. "There is only one alternative in the world to fight the coronavirus now, it is social distancing."

Write to Jeffrey T. Lewis at jeffrey.lewis@wsj.com and Luciana Magalhaes at Luciana.Magalhaes@wsj.com


Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
EURO / BRAZILIAN REAL (EUR/BRL) 0.07% 6.0133 Delayed Quote.33.76%
GENERAL MOTORS COMPANY 4.14% 24.39 Delayed Quote.-33.36%
RISE, INC. -3.13% 31 End-of-day quote.3.33%
THE NEW HOME COMPANY INC. 2.16% 3.31 Delayed Quote.-28.97%
WORLD CO., LTD. -5.40% 1420 End-of-day quote.-47.23%
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