‘We’re being left behind’: anger and confusion in Brazil as vaccine program lags | World news

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Each night Brazilian newscasters throw their government’s jumbled coronavirus response into sharper relief.

“Tomorrow, the Mexican government will start vaccinating health professionals,” Brazil’s top news bulletin, the Jornal Nacional, reported last Wednesday. “This morning 25 EU countries had their first day of mass vaccination,” it said on Monday. On Tuesday the glad tidings came from next door: “Today, Argentina started immunizing its citizens.”

In Brazil, meanwhile, confusion and growing anger surround the start of a vaccination program supposed to save South America’s biggest country from an epidemic that has killed nearly 200,000 people and pummeled its economy.

“When will the Covid vaccine reach Brazil?” Brasília’s leading newspaper, the Correio Braziliense, wondered on its front page. No one, not even the president, Jair Bolsonaro – who says he will refuse to be vaccinated – had a clear answer.

“We’re being left behind, even compared to other Latin American countries like Chile, Argentina and Costa Rica. It’s really worrying,” said Mariana Varella, a public health writer.

“Their behaviour has been a mix of incompetence and negligence,” said Natalia Pasternak, a microbiologist who is one of the most vocal scientific critics of Bolsonaro’s actions.

“If you’d asked me at the start of the pandemic, I’d have said Brazil was perfectly placed to be the first Latin American country to vaccinate its population. We’re the country with the biggest vaccination program infrastructure in terms of vaccination stations, our ‘cold chain’ distribution network, and transport.”

“But there’s no point in having all this if you don’t have a vaccine,” added Pasternak, who runs the Question of Science Institute. “All these other countries planned properly. Brazil didn’t.”

Experts say Brazil’s dithering – a shock given its internationally-respected immunization program – is further proof of Bolsonaro’s bungled reaction to what he calls a “little flu”.

“The government underestimated the pandemic from the outset. Despite all the evidence, I don’t think they believed it would last for so many months, kill so many or have such a big economic impact,” said Varella, who edits the Portal Drauzio Varella website.

Varella said Bolsonaro’s “primordial mistake” had been packing the health ministry – now led by an active duty general – with military officials “who knew nothing about public health” and had not struck the right vaccine deals.

“A lot of it is about incompetence and just real ignorance,” Varella said.

“We have all these wonderful examples of Brazilian public health: the SUS [national health service], the national immunization program, the treatment of HIV/Aids – so many programs that are global references – and yet suddenly we see the health ministry being dismantled.”​

Bolsonaro, a former army captain, is coming under growing attack for the foot-dragging.

“Several countries, including in Latin America, are now vaccinating their citizens against Covid-19. Where’s the vaccine for Brazilians?” Bolsonaro’s former ally, Sergio Moro, demanded, asking: “Is there a president in Brasília?”

Another rival, Rodrigo Maia, claimed Brazilians were “starting to panic”, calling the delay “Bolsonaro’s greatest political mistake”. Polls, however, suggest a sizeable chunk of the population still backs Bolsonaro.

The delay largely revolves around Brazil pinning its hopes on the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine and not purchasing the Pfizer/BioNTech shots being used in countries including Mexico and Chile. Until recently the government also shunned China’s CoronaVac, with Bolsonaro blocking the purchase of 46m shots for apparently political reasons.

Critics say that over-reliance has risked lives by delaying efforts to vaccinate Brazil’s 212 million citizens. “I understand the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines shouldn’t be Brazil’s main bet for vaccinating the whole population because of the price and logistical difficulties. But we could at least have purchased some of these vaccines for some priority groups in the big cities – and Brazil ignored this,” said Varella.

There was a boost for Bolsonaro on Wednesday after the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine was approved in the UK. One health official said Brazil could start vaccinating between 20 January and 10 February.

Yet many doubt those deadlines and question Brazil’s failure to acquire sufficient supplies. On Tuesday, as more than 1,000 new deaths were confirmed, there were reports the health ministry had purchased fewer than 8m of the 331m syringes required.

“We won’t manage to vaccinate the whole population next year – this is now pretty much a consensus … so the pandemic won’t be under control and we will face all the economic, political and social consequences,” Varella warned. “I sincerely believe 2021 will be an even worse year than 2020.”

Bolsonaro denies dawdling. “I’m not bothered,” he said on Saturday, later claiming he was “in a hurry to obtain a safe, efficient and quality vaccine”.

Pasternak said she felt envy, but not surprise as she watched other nations vaccinate and her leaders flail.

“The federal government’s stance matches the stance they have taken since the start of the pandemic, which is one of denial. If you can’t see the severity of the situation we’re going through and think social distancing and masks are needless … why would you bother investing much in a vaccine?”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: ‘We’re being left behind’: anger and confusion in Brazil as vaccine program lags | World news

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