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Death toll mounts as Bolsonaro’s favourite drug divides nation

“Some people are just so casual. They don’t wear their masks properly. They think that because they’ve been in hospitals all their lives, they are not going to catch it,” she says.

Daniela is not casual. She bought herself a beekeeper’s suit at the beginning of the crisis as the ultimate personal protection equipment. But it proved too cumbersome. Now she makes do with two overalls, a surgical mask, gloves and frequent sanitising. To place a patient on ventilators, she wears a waterproof overall on top.

Everything is wiped, her clothes, shoes, bag, hair are washed every day – as soon as she walks in the back door of her apartment. Her family has moved out, so she is not a risk to them. She resigned from another hospital when managers withheld a supply of surgical masks, arguing they were needed for dealing with confirmed cases only.

She has taken to sleeping in her car in the hospital carpark during designated breaks, because the room reserved for rest is full of doctors and nurses taking the virus less seriously.

Today she also tested herself: “I’m negative,” she exhales. “I’m happy.”


Brazil may yet have the tragic honour of overtaking other countries hardest hit by the pandemic.

On Thursday (Friday AEST), it reported 26,417 new coronavirus cases, according to the Health Ministry, bringing its total tally to 438,238, second only to the United States. Delays in reporting, difficulties in counting indigenous patients, scant data on those who die outside hospitals and lack of widespread testing point to a much higher figure.

Epidemiological modelling puts the South American giant’s eventual final death count somewhere between 88,300 and 125,000 by the end of winter. That could be higher than the United States, which broke 100,000 deaths on Thursday.

Brazilians cannot understand how it all went so wrong. More than half the population is estimated to have complied with stay-at-home requests by governors in some states. In Sao Paulo, quarantine was declared on March 23, around the same time as Australians were ordered to stay home.

Far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has taken pride in setting the anti-lockdown example. He famously dismissed the illness as “just a little flu” and has continued to flaunt medical expert guidelines by joining crowds outside his residence and on the streets, picking up small children, taking selfies with supporters and urging people to go back to work.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, centre, with Minister of Institutional Security and Brazilian Army General Augusto Heleno waves to supporters.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, centre, with Minister of Institutional Security and Brazilian Army General Augusto Heleno waves to supporters.Credit:Getty Images

He also made the pandemic a partisan issue.

“Those from the right take chloroquine, those from the left take [a soft drink that rhymes with chloroquine],” he said laughing and amplifying online memes during an online interview on the day Brazil’s infection toll put it behind only the US. The message is subliminal: his supporters are tough.

The anti-malarial drug, and its cousin hydroxychloroquine promoted by US President Donald Trump, is Bolsonaro’s favourite. Two health ministers, both doctors, were ousted or resigned after disagreeing with its use as a method to prevent coronavirus.

Daniella feels the President’s drug recipe is designed to give people a false sense of security – if they feel immune, there’s no need to shutter the economy.

“They want people to take it to make them go out. It’s extremely worrying.”

Bolsonaro’s supporters have flooded social media protesting the lockdowns and the scientific community’s counter-indication of the unproven drug that has, in fact, been found to cause more deaths. The WHO this week suspended its trials due to safety concerns and on Wednesday France prohibited its use to treat COVID-19.

But quoting doctors in renowned hospitals who “have cured themselves” with chloroquine alone or in conjunction with other antivirals and antibiotics, voters justify their support for it along the same lines as their support for the President: arguing both are victims of a corrupt media and political system.


Nicole McLean, PhD candidate at the University of Melbourne, says this fits with the far-right ideology espoused by Bolsonaro.

“It goes with not believing the science. People believe what they want to believe, and not just in conspiracy theories. Their beliefs are based on ‘personal judgement’,” says McLean whose work focuses on Brazilian political and social movements as propaganda vehicles of the New Right.

Bolsonaro has said repeatedly the collateral effect of lockdowns would be “much worse” than the virus.

“Remember, Brazil was taking off. [GDP] growth was almost 2 per cent. Then came the pandemic and the panic generated by the mainstream media,” the President said.

Felipe Feliz, resident of Morro do Borel community, holds a sign that reads in Portuguese 'Can you donate 1kg of food?' during the pandemic in Rio de Janeiro.

Felipe Feliz, resident of Morro do Borel community, holds a sign that reads in Portuguese ‘Can you donate 1kg of food?’ during the pandemic in Rio de Janeiro.Credit:Getty Images

McLean sees this as Bolsonaro’s typical Trump-imitating behaviour.

“Bolsonaro’s government is heavily dependent on hate speech. He was elected through social media. His government has played off, unfortunately very well, the [low] confidence in the mainstream media.

“He is bringing it back to his argument: if people don’t trust the mainstream, they go to social media – Instagram, Facebook – where he thrives.”

The country’s hospital system hasn’t yet collapsed, according to doctors, health professionals and activists The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald spoke to.

It built field hospitals, some in football stadiums, in several cities and commandeered some hospitals as COVID-19 only, while others are treating a mix of cases.

But as the virus spreads through indigenous communities and the mega-slums of cities such as Rio de Janeiro, collapse of the health system or just a shocking death toll in the country of 212 million is not far off.

“Every day, it’s like war,” says Fernanda Saccoletto, a nutritionist working for a COVID-19 dedicated private hospital, part of a large chain in Sao Paulo.

Dressed for battle: Nutritionist Fernanda Saccoletto works in a COVID-19 only private hospital in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Dressed for battle: Nutritionist Fernanda Saccoletto works in a COVID-19 only private hospital in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

“We have 100 per cent occupation. Our ICU is full. There are no people in the corridors because this is a private hospital and we have better infrastructure, but the number of cases is not going down. There is a climate of tension 24 hours a day. It’s frightening.”

She says the Health Ministry has provided guidelines, put professionals through specialist courses and launched a hotline for mental health support, but confusion over drugs persist.

“We only follow the international guidelines but there are people [elsewhere] using drugs that aren’t approved – chloroquine, Tamiflu, azithromycin, antibiotics. They are trying their luck.”

From Bolsonaro’s point of view, there isn’t much more he can do.

“Politically, for my part, it’s all resolved, he said on Saturday. “In health, we’re doing our best. Few places lack ventilators or ICU beds. Now, the great crisis is economic.”

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