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Brazil could surpass the US as the country worst hit by coronavirus this summer

1 million coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Brazil.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro takes off his mask to speak to journalists during a press conference about the coronavirus outbreak on March 20, 2020 in Brasilia.
Andressa Anholete/Getty Images

Brazil reported a new 24-hour record for new coronavirus cases on Friday, pushing the country’s total to more than 1 million confirmed cases — an indicator that the South American nation could surpass the US as the worst-hit country in the world this summer.

Experts say that President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-scientific attitude toward the virus and resistance to robust social distancing measures have contributed significantly to the accelerating spread of Covid-19 and its mounting death toll.

The 54,771 new cases reported on Friday bring the country’s confirmed total to 1,032,913. Total official fatalities due to the coronavirus hit 48,954, and given the pace of new infections, the country could surpass 50,000 deaths over the weekend.

Experts say the number of actual cases in Brazil is likely significantly higher. Alexandre Naime Barbosa, a medical professor at the São Paulo State University, told NBC News that he believes there is “under-reporting of a magnitude of five to 10 times.”

“There are questions about really how much testing is going on in most of the areas worst-affected, which may also influence the numbers,” Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA)’s director of the Andes, told CBS News.

Sánchez-Garzoli also added she wouldn’t “trust” the numbers released by the government.

Earlier in June, Brazil’s health ministry wiped its running cumulative totals of cases and deaths, and instead showed only data on new cases and deaths on a 24-hour basis.

Bolsonaro tweeted that the change in available data was because “cumulative data, in addition to not showing that the large part [of patients] no longer has the illness, does not depict the moment of the country.”

But the move received backlash, and Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that the government had to report comprehensive data, according to CNN.

According to a University of Washington tracking model, Brazil could surpass the US with the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world as early as August 1, CNN reports. The model predicts that the death toll could break the 100,000 mark in less than a month.

The spread of the virus poses a particularly serious threat to Brazil’s most socioeconomically vulnerable populations. Sánchez-Garzoli told CBS that the health care system was poorly equipped to provide adequate care to most people, and that the coronavirus was an “added factor that is leading to the extinction of different [indigenous] groups.”

Brazil has handled the coronavirus extremely poorly

Experts say that much of the current crisis can be attributed to Bolsonaro’s leadership style and policy decisions.

Bolsonaro has consistently downplayed the virus, calling it a “little flu” and arguing that Brazilians are well-suited for it because they can be dunked in sewage and “don’t catch a thing.” The president has also frequently defied social distancing guidelines from his own administration, encouraged massive rallies, and has opposed lockdowns initiated by governors of states, accusing them of exploiting the pandemic for political gain.

In other words, much as Trump’s rhetoric about the virus has done in the United States, Bolsonaro has turned the coronavirus crisis in his country into a polarizing culture war.

In April, Bolsonaro fired his popular health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, because Mandetta urged Brazilians to observe social distancing and to stay indoors. The dismissal came after weeks of the two offering diverging prescriptions for how the public should act to slow the spread of the virus, and raised the ire of many Brazilians.

And the health minister who took over after Mandetta resigned just four weeks into the job.

In addition to actively undermining the counsel of public health officials, Bolsonaro has promoted the use of remedies that have not been proven to treat Covid-19, like chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine.

“Decisions are being made not based on evidence and empirical data but rather on anecdotal reports,” Denise Garrett, a Brazilian-American epidemiologist who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for more than 20 years, told the New York Times. “Bolsonaro invested a huge amount of money into an action that has not been proven to be effective at the expense of increasing testing and contact tracing.”

Bolsonaro has also used the pandemic as an opportunity to attempt to undermine other branches of government and amass more political power. Earlier this spring, he joined a rally of right-wing supporters who called for military intervention because they view the country’s Supreme Court and legislature as obstacles to his campaign against pandemic lockdown measures.

Brazil’s past health ministers predicted the spread of the coronavirus would hit its peak between May and July. But given Bolsonaro’s resistance to adhering to any scientific guidance, it’s extremely difficult to predict its course.