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Brazil's easing of COVID-19 controls will cause new surge, experts warn

·3-min read

By Pedro Fonseca

RIO DE JANEIRO, May 14 (Reuters) - The corner bars are jammed once again with rambunctious crowds in Brazil's largest cities, but health experts warn that the easing of COVID-19 restrictions is premature and will deepen the world's second deadliest pandemic.

"People think the pandemic is over ... but we are racing towards the edge of a precipice," said epidemiologist Wanderson Oliveira, the country's former health surveillance secretary.

With no national policy coordination by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro's government, and under pressure to get their economies running again, Brazilian governors and mayors have eased restrictions on non-essential activities.

In Rio de Janeiro, authorities have even allowed live music performances to resume in bars.

"In two or three months we will have an increase in deaths as a result of these measures. Hospitals are filling up and most patients die, unfortunately," said Jesem Orellana, an epidemiologist at the Fiocruz biomedical center.

Brazil has lagged other nations in vaccinating its people, and the government of Bolsonaro, who has opposed lockdowns and played down the gravity of the virus, is under investigation in Congress for failing to secure timely vaccine supplies.

After reaching a peak of 4,249 COVID-19 deaths in a single day on April 8, Brazil has seen a stabilization at a still high plateau of about 2,000 fatalities a day, just below India.

Health experts are warning that Brazil has not learned from its mistake in easing restrictions last year that lead to this year's lethal surge.

COVID-19 has killed 430,000 people in Brazil, second only to the United States, and the South American nation has the third highest number of overall confirmed cases of coronavirus after the United States and India.

According to Google's mobility report based on the location of cell phones, the presence of people in workplaces last week reached its highest level since the beginning of monitoring.

The approaching southern hemisphere winter, when respiratory diseases multiply, is expected to make matters worse.

"It's the worst possible time to become more flexible with social distancing restrictions in Brazil, especially in the south of the country," said Orellana, from Fiocruz.

"The problem is not so much the return to normal activities, but the speed and irresponsibility of this return," he added.

Fiocruz warned this week that social interaction, especially indoors with large numbers of people and little fresh air, must be avoided or else a new explosion of cases could be "catastrophic" in Brazil.

Orellana said only mass inoculation can avert such a scenario, but Brazil's pace of vaccination is far too slow.

Only 16.3% of the population, or 34.4 million people, have received their first dose, and just 7.8%, or 16.4 million people, are fully vaccinated, according to the health ministry.

Due to supply constraints, daily vaccine doses administered have slumped to roughly half of their peak of over a million shots a day in mid April, according to "Our World in Data."

(Reporting by Anthony Boadle Editing by Bill Berkrot)