Brazil surpasses US in getting people fully vaccinated against Covid-19

RIO DE JANEIRO (NYTIMES) – Once a pandemic hotspot, Brazil has edged past the United States in fully vaccinating its people against the coronavirus, with over 60 per cent of the Brazilian population fully immunised.

The achievement contrasts with Brazil’s much derided handling of the pandemic under President Jair Bolsonaro, who refused to get vaccinated himself. It also reflects the extent of the public’s trust in a robust healthcare system with a track record of responding quickly to such crises.

Under a government that consistently dismissed the threat of the virus, Brazil faced a lack of coronavirus tests, masks, hospital beds and even oxygen. These shortages at times pushed its known daily death toll to be the highest in the world. Over 600,000 Brazilians are known to have died of Covid-19, a number eclipsed only by the United States.

In the United States, 59 per cent of the population is fully vaccinated. Early this year, as the campaign to vaccinate Americans began, millions were inoculated each day. But since mid-April, vaccinations have been lower in comparison, in part by political opposition or by fears over the safety of the doses available for use.

The vaccine rollout in Brazil has been much slower than in the United States, and critics of Mr Bolsonaro say that was a consequence of the government’s resistance toward the vaccines.

“Some people say I’m giving a terrible example,” Mr Bolsonaro said in July of opponents who admonished him for his refusal to get inoculated. “What if I turned into an alligator?”

But his scepticism did not quell Brazilians’ enthusiasm toward the vaccines. As doses became available, social media was flooded with pictures of Brazilians getting shots in their arms with signs praising public health and criticising the government. Many dressed as alligators for the occasion to mock the president.

Even Mr Bolsonaro’s close relatives and allies gave in. “I took the vaccine in secret,” Mr Luiz Eduardo Ramos, his former chief of staff, was recorded saying at a closed meeting. “Like any human being, I want to live, damn it.”

Dr Daniel Soranz, who heads the public health department in Rio de Janeiro, said his city could have vaccinated its citizens three times faster if doses had arrived earlier. Its current vaccination rate, 70 per cent, is higher than New York City’s.

“People in Rio are fighting to get the vaccine,” he said. “This anti-vaccine discourse doesn’t really stick with people here.”

Dr Soranz and other experts say Brazil’s public health system and its decades-old immunisation programme made a difference in the vaccine rollout, even as the national government’s plan to fight the pandemic was mired in chaos. The country has tens of thousands of permanent vaccination posts, and city officials coordinate annual immunisation campaigns each year.

Many believe a government that did not disregard scientific expertise would have done a better job, as other Latin American countries, such as Chile and Uruguay, did. Brazil’s Health Ministry went through four ministers during the pandemic and continued political infighting has rendered Brazil’s national immunisation programme leaderless for months.

Mr Jose Gomes Temporao, a former health minister, said the government had stepped up its efforts to buy vaccines after a congressional inquiry started asking tough questions. The group of lawmakers overseeing the inquiry recently accused Mr Bolsonaro of crimes against humanity over his response to the pandemic.

But poorer states are still struggling to vaccinate people. Many states in the Brazilian Amazon, where some cities can be reached only by boat, have vaccination rates below 50 per cent.

Still, many in Brazil think the worst of the pandemic is behind them. Rio, for one, is preparing for big celebrations in the coming months. Dr Soranz said: “We are planning the biggest carnival in our history.”

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