If coronavirus was not so serious, observers of how the government in Brazil is handling the outbreak could be considered a farce.
With nearly 2,000 already dead and 31,000 cases of the infection reported, there are some doubts over the accuracy of data coming from the country with a population of 212 million – the sixth most populous in the world.
However, President Jair Bolsonaro has labelled covid-19 as a ‘little flu’ and nothing to worry about despite more than 2 million people falling ill worldwide and 150,000 deaths.
In his latest tantrum, the president has fired health minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta for urging Brazilians to comply with social distancing and to stay at home to check the spread of the outbreak.
Health service near to collapse
While Bolsonaro has downplayed the pandemic that has gripped the world and suggested untried remedies would counter the effects, Mandetta and other ministers have struggled to have their dissenting voices heard.
Mandetta led the government’s daily briefings and was widely praised for his handling of the crisis, which was based on advice from senior scientists and doctors.
Brazil already has Latin America’s largest cemetery for coronavirus victims and Mandetta had laid plans for expansion.
Hospitals are creaking under the strain of treating thousands of extra patients and the health system is close to collapse, while experts have warned coronavirus will not peak in the country until late in May or early June, with thousands more expected to die.
Suspected underreporting of coronavirus
Testing is almost non-existent – averaging just 300 per million of population, compared to almost 9,500 in the US.
Dr Carolina Lazari, medical chief of the molecular biology laboratory at Latin America’s biggest hospital, Hospital das Clínicas, says “the ministry numbers are a photograph of the past.”
“All we see is the tip of the iceberg. In Brazil we only test the patients that go to hospital and stay there – the more severe cases – but we don’t know how the virus is circulating in the population.”
In response Bolsonaro announced Mandetta did not fully appreciate the need to protect jobs and called for economic activity to resume.
“We need to return to normal, not as fast as possible, but we need to start having some flexibility,” said the president. “Life is priceless, but the economy and employment need to return to normality.”