Brazil could be the next big coronavirus hotspot as the number of cases and deaths surge despite President Jair Bolsonaro’s insistence that it is “just a little flu”.
Hospitals are being pushed to breaking point and there are signs that a growing number of victims are now dying at home as the outbreak in Latin America’s biggest country escalates.
“We have all the conditions here for the pandemic to become much more serious,” said Paulo Brandao, a virologist at the University of Sao Paulo.
Brazil officially reported around 4,500 deaths and almost 67,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19.
However, the true numbers are thought to be vastly higher given the lack of testing and the many people who have not sought hospital care.
Some scientists said over one million in Brazil are likely infected.
The country – which has a population of 211 million – is heading into winter, which can worsen respiratory illness.
Mr Bolsonaro has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the disease and insists there is no need for sharp restrictions that have been used to slow the spread in Europe and the US.
The Brazilian leader said people need to resume their lives through the pandemic to prevent an economic meltdown, but most state governors in the country have adopted restrictions to slow the spread and have advised people to stay at home.
Mr Bolsonaro recently fired his popular health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, after a series of disagreements over efforts to contain the virus.
“I know… life is priceless. But the economy and jobs must return to normal,” Mr Bolsonaro said, as he introduced his new health minister, Nelson Teich, an advocate for reopening the economy.
The sacking of Mr Mandetta sparked widespread protests, with residents leaning out their windows to bang pots and pans.
Medical officials in Rio de Janeiro and at least four other major cities have warned that their hospital systems are on the verge of collapse or are too busy to take any more patients.
In Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America with over 21 million residents, death certificates were issued for 236 people who died at home over the past two weeks – double the number before the outbreak, according to the SAMU paramedic service.
Manaus, an Amazon city of 1.8 million, recorded 142 deaths on Sunday – the most yet – including 41 who died at home.
Mass graves are currently being dug by workers in the city’s main cemetery.
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