The United States is clearly ground zero for the coronavirus outbreak at the moment, but the next one may already be emerging 4,500 miles south.
“Brazil is probably the next epicenter of the pandemic in the world,” Luciano Cesar Azevedo, a physician who has been spending his days and nights treating COVID-19 patients in intensive-care units in São Paulo, the country’s largest city, told me this week. “I think Brazil is going to get close to 100,000 deaths.” On the day we spoke, Azevedo noted that ICU beds in the city’s public health-care system were at 90 percent occupancy. He said Rio de Janeiro, whose health-care system is already seriously strained by the outbreak, could become Brazil’s New York.
Tom Inglesby of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health notes that the country reported 3,700 new daily cases on April 23. Less than two weeks later, on May 6, new daily cases had more than tripled, to 11,896. The developments in Brazil “are really concerning,” Inglesby told me.
The nation of more than 200 million people has so far recorded fewer than 10,000 deaths from COVID-19, a small fraction of America’s death toll. But confirmed cases and fatalities are rapidly growing, each day leading to dismal new records and rendering Brazil the hardest-hit country in Latin America and one of the worst-off in the world. Flu season hasn’t even arrived yet (the Southern Hemisphere is heading into winter), and a dengue outbreak in the country may peak just as the coronavirus outbreak does. Inadequate testing means that Brazil’s official case count, which is already well over 100,000, could actually be as much as 10 times higher, according to Azevedo, who is also a professor of critical care and emergency medicine at the University of São Paulo, which runs a public hospital, and the head of education at Hospital Sírio-Libanês, a private facility. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, one of the world’s leading coronavirus deniers, is pushing to ease social-distancing restrictions and reopen the economy, which could accelerate the spread of the virus. “We are only at the beginning,” Azevedo said.