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Brazil reports record infections as coronavirus spreads to all regions

By THE WASHINGTON POST | Terrence McCoy | Published: July 23, 2020

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RIO DE JANEIRO – There was a time, weeks ago, when Carlos Renan dos Santos Evaldt allowed himself to hope. Much of Brazil was in varying states of chaos as the coronavirus devastated the country's largest cities. But it had largely spared the wealthier, more developed south.

Maybe the region's preventive measures had succeeded, Evaldt thought. Maybe the nightmare unfolding elsewhere wouldn't happen in Porto Alegre, which in May had the lowest transmission rate among any large Brazilian city.

But after a surge in cases and deaths, his city is considering imposing a lockdown. The pockets of Brazil that had been largely unscathed by the virus – the south, the vast central states – have been engulfed by it. And the hope Evaldt once entertained feels to him now like a foolish indulgence.

"People thought what happened elsewhere wouldn't happen here, that it couldn't happen here," said Evaldt, a Porto Alegre banker. "Now it is very clear that a safe place doesn't exist. No one is safe."

The sheer relentlessness of the surge here underscores Brazil's failure to quell the world's second-worst coronavirus outbreak. On Wednesday, Latin America's largest country posted a record of 65,339 new cases, bringing the total infected to 2.2 million, with 83,000 dead. Both counts are second only to the United States.

The swell is being driven by the outbreak in São Paulo, long Brazil's coronavirus epicenter, but also new and sharply ascendant outbreaks that span the country. More than 80 percent of Brazilian municipalities have reported cases of coronavirus.

"It is everywhere you look," said Alexandre Kalache, a prominent doctor here. "You say, 'My goodness.' Eighty-percent of municipalities?' And soon it will cover all of them."

As the disease has grown into a crippling disaster, the federal government has continued to punt leadership to states and municipalities. But the preventive measures that states and cities have imposed – lockdowns, closures and quarantines – have been routinely undercut by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has made diminishing the crisis perhaps the defining element of his presidency.

Even after Bolsonaro tested positive for the virus this month, he continued to downplay its severity. He said it wasn't harmful for the young – though that has not been the case in Brazil. He again hailed the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine, which scientists say is unproven for the treatment of COVID-19 and potentially harmful.

The virus "is like rain," he said. "It will reach you."

And with that, he disappeared into isolation, from which he has scarcely emerged for weeks. On Wednesday, he again tested positive for the virus and canceled his travel plans.

In the absence of a coordinated plan or coherent federal leadership, Brazil's outbreak has yet to stabilize, let alone decline. Instead, it has fanned out. Now scenes of hospitals deluged and medical systems pushed to the limit – familiar in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and the Amazonian city of Manaus – are playing out just about everywhere.

Some Brazilians have taken to speaking of the virus with a certain fatalism.

"There's something fundamentally wrong that we have done," Kalache said. "It's like, 'So what? It's destiny. It's like a shower, and everyone will get wet, and it's their destiny.'"

Brazil's accelerating tally shows once more how difficult it is for officials to outmaneuver the virus. States across the south imposed strict containment measures at the beginning of the pandemic. Businesses and schools closed. People largely stayed indoors. Weeks passed, then months. Without a significant outbreak, people returned to the streets and measures relaxed. Shopping malls filled once more.

The virus rushed in soon after.

In the last two weeks, the number of cases have risen more than 50% across the southern states. In the central city of Belo Horizonte, cases have nearly doubled. Now the hospital system in the southern city of Curitiba is flirting with saturation. In Porto Alegre, hospital officials announced the system had reached capacity.

"The great concern is that when people arrive we won't be able to take them, because there won't be any stretchers or beds, and this is worrying," João Almir Camargo Jorge, a local doctor, told to the Brazilian news site G1.

Evaldt, who has been working from home for months, said people were too quick to reopen businesses. He sees now the virus was always there, waiting.

"They put businesses and the economy before peoples' lives," he said.

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