While the Covid-19 pandemic has shattered lives worldwide, some countries have been significantly more affected than others. In the past couple of months, the rollout of several different versions of Covid-19 vaccines have provided a light at the end of the tunnel for many. Different countries have approved many labs’ vaccines that all use varying technology. Currently, the three vaccines approved in the United States are being distributed, first to those deemed most in need like medical professionals, K-12 teachers, and those with underlying health conditions.
However, this story varies in other parts of the world, and Brazil’s experience with the pandemic and vaccinations has been especially acute and destructive.
Brazil has had a particularly devastating and deathly experience with Covid-19. It has seen over 12.5 million cases and 320,000 deaths, a death rate comparable to the United States'. In early June, Brazil averaged about 1,000 deaths every day and became the country with the second highest death toll from the pandemic, after America. Since that initial peak, the influx of cases slowed for a few months, but then picked up again, and Brazil is still very much in the thick of the pandemic. The havoc caused by the pandemic came as a surprise to many, because Brazil is known to have a strong national healthcare system with a long history of effective vaccine distribution. But this time around, government skepticism is leading to massive setbacks on the vaccination timeline.
Like in the United States, some groups in Brazil have been harmed much more than others. The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics reported that Black Brazilians were twice as likely as white ones to have Covid-19 symptoms, and much more likely to lose their jobs or have their salaries cut down. Death rates in poorer Brazilian cities were also much higher than death rates in wealthier cities.
In addition to the death toll and social effects, Brazil has faced serious economic decline in light of the pandemic. Unemployment has increased significantly: in September of 2020, the unemployment rate stood at 14.6%, the highest rate since at least 2012. Rates of poverty have also increased, and Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product has continued on its eight-year downward trend.
As more and more vaccines become available, Brazil’s leadership has been extremely hesitant to approve them. Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil since 2019, is a skeptic of the reality of the pandemic, and has been reluctant to approve vaccines, citing several reasons that were not backed up by any evidence and were only based on his own opinion. He claimed that the majority of Brazilians didn’t want the vaccine, that the side effects could be extremely dangerous, and that the pandemic was already ending without one. While Brazil’s health regulatory agency, Anvisa, was interested in approving a vaccine, Bolsonaro tried to prevent approval for as long as he could.
Bolsonaro stated in December, "In the Pfizer contract, it's very clear. 'We're not responsible for any side effects.' If you turn into a crocodile, that's your problem. If you become superhuman, if a woman starts to grow a beard or if a man starts to speak with an effeminate voice, they won't have anything to do with it.”
Brazil’s president has also been quoted saying many other false or unproven statements about Covid-19. He has downplayed the severity of the pandemic and the symptoms of the virus, and made claims that masks are ineffective at preventing COVID’s spread.
Despite surging cases, Brazil was one of the last countries in North and South America to approve a vaccine. It was not until mid-January that Brazil approved the Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Sinovac vaccines for emergency use. The Pfizer vaccine was fully approved in late February.
Since the first vaccines were approved, 15 million Brazilians have received their first dose of a vaccine. This means less than 7% of Brazil’s population has been vaccinated. The United States, which is the only country with more Covid-19 deaths than Brazil, has, in contrast, fully vaccinated nearly 14% of its population, with one in four Americans having received at least one dose. The hesitation to approve a vaccine has undoubtedly hindered Brazil’s ability to control the virus and has set it back several months in achieving herd immunity.