Brazil Is Becoming the New Epicenter of the Pandemic

An uncoordinated response, political polarization, and the sheer size of the country may help explain it

Mariana Lenharo
Elemental
Published in
5 min readJun 17, 2020

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Photo illustration. Photos (Getty Images): alexey_ds/daboost

Brazil is now the country with the second-highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths — only the United States has a more devastating case count. Over 100 days after the first case was confirmed in Brazil, the curve is still going up, likely far from reaching its peak. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently declared South America the new epicenter of the disease, with Brazil being the most affected in the region.

Yet, many Brazilians seem to downplay the gravity of the pandemic. In my hometown, Ourinhos, a small city in the state of São Paulo, people crowded the streets of the downtown shopping district when stores reopened, despite surging cases, one week ago. And this past weekend in the city of São Paulo, the largest in the country and home to over 12 million people, the most popular shopping street was brimming with customers who had to form lines outside the stores waiting for their turn to shop.

This posture of denial also impregnates some of President Jair Bolsonaro’s remarks on the novel coronavirus, most notably when he compared the disease with a “little flu” and responded “so what?” when a reporter questioned him about the mounting number of deaths. The denialist attitude likely contributed to Covid-19’s rapid spread in Brazil, but there are other factors.

One of them is simply the size of Brazil — a country of continental dimensions with 210 million people. “It was inevitable that Brazil would become the new epicenter at some point. The epicenter started in Asia, then migrated to Europe, followed by the United States. The large country that was left was Brazil,” says epidemiologist Pedro Hallal, PhD, professor at the Federal University of Pelotas and the coordinator of the largest epidemiological study on Covid-19 in the country.

Political disputes fueled noncompliance to state quarantines

In the weeks after the WHO characterized Covid-19 a pandemic on March 11, several state and local governments in Brazil implemented a quarantine, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, two…

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Mariana Lenharo
Elemental

Science and health journalist with a special interest in evidence-based medicine and epidemics. Columbia Journalism School alumna. mari.lenharo@gmail.com.