Brazil sees record COVID-19 deaths as pot-bangers jeer Bolsonaro speech

Pedro Fonseca and Gabriel Stargardter
·3-min read
Brazilian cardiologist Queiroga is set to become the country's new health minister

By Pedro Fonseca and Gabriel Stargardter

RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazil suffered a record 3,251 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, as pot-banging protests erupted across the country during an address by President Jair Bolsonaro in which he defended his pandemic response and pledged to ramp up vaccinations.

The new record number of daily deaths underlines the scale of Brazil's outbreak, which is spiraling out of control thanks to a lumpy vaccine rollout and a messy patchwork of public health restrictions that are pushing the country's hospitals to the breaking point.

Bolsonaro is under mounting pressure to control the outbreak, after repeatedly playing down the virus, sowing doubts about vaccines and fighting state and local lockdown measures.

In his brief televised address, Bolsonaro said his government had never failed to adopt measures to combat the pandemic and said he would make 2021 the year of vaccinations.

However, in cities across Brazil, loud pot-banging protests echoed through the night as many voiced their anger at his handling of an outbreak that has killed nearly 300,000 people.

Earlier on Tuesday, Bolsonaro swore in cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga as his fourth health minister since the pandemic began, in a closed ceremony. Tapped by Bolsonaro on March 15, Queiroga replaces Eduardo Pazuello, an active-duty army general who has overseen most of the pandemic response.

It remains to be seen what path Queiroga will chart as health minister. Pazuello's two predecessors both left government after clashing with Bolsonaro's views on COVID-19.

Bolsonaro has gained international notoriety for his efforts to fight lockdowns, dismiss mask mandates and advocate unproven remedies such as hydroxychloroquine.

On Tuesday, he received a fresh setback when Brazil's Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal against several states' measures restricting economic activity to slow contagion, according to a document seen by Reuters.

Bolsonaro also received a setback when the country's Supreme Court ruled his fierce political rival, former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, had not been treated impartially in graft probes that led to his convictions. The decision appears certain to ensure the far-right former army captain will face Lula in next year's presidential vote in which they are both expected to run.

VACCINE WOES

Despite Bolsonaro's newfound focus on vaccines, the reality remains challenging for Brazil.

The country's federally funded Fiocruz Institute, which is producing the AstraZeneca vaccine that serves as the cornerstone of the government's vaccine rollout, said on Tuesday it would only deliver 18.8 million shots in April, down from an initial forecast of 30 million.

Only 2.6% of Brazilian adults have so far received two vaccine doses, according to a Fiocruz survey, while 7.6% of the population, or 12.1 million people, have received one shot.

The World Health Organization's (WHO) regional director for the Americas, Carissa Etienne, said on Tuesday the virus is surging "dangerously" across Brazil, and urged all Brazilians to adopt preventive measures to stop the spread.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; Writing by Carolina Mandl and Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Brad Haynes and Aurora Ellis)