Brazil's daily Covid-19 death toll soared past 3,000 for the first time Tuesday as the hard-hit country struggled to contain a surge of cases that has pushed many hospitals to breaking point.
The Health Ministry registered a record 3,251 deaths in the past 24 hours, bringing Brazil's overall death toll to nearly 299,000 – second only to the United States.
The latest bleak milestone came on the same day President Jair Bolsonaro installed his fourth health minister of the pandemic, facing pressure to change tack after downplaying the virus and flouting expert advice on containing it.
Cardiologist Marcelo Queiroga, 55, took over the post from Eduardo Pazuello, an Army general with no medical experience whose handling of Covid-19 was widely criticised.
Pazuello is notably facing investigation for failing to ensure oxygen supplies to the northern city of Manaus, where there were horrific scenes in January of Covid-19 patients suffocating to death when hospitals ran out.
Bolsonaro's first two health ministers, doctors Luiz Henrique Mandetta and Nelson Teich, both fell out with the president over his defiance of expert advice on containing the virus.
'Very soon a normal life'?
Speaking late Tuesday Bolsonaro said that Brazil would resume "very soon a normal life" thanks to the vaccination campaign that he had early criticized.
"I want to reassure the Brazilian people and inform them that the vaccines are guaranteed. By the end of the year we will have more than 500 million doses of vaccine to vaccinate the whole population," Bolsonaro said.
Currently some 11.1 million Brazilians, or 5.2 percent of the population, have received at least one dose of vaccine and 3.5 million both doses, according to an AFP tally based on official figures.
Bolsonaro, who is up for re-election in 2022, has also gone from dismissing the pandemic to expressing solidarity "with all those who have lost a loved one."
His presentation however was met with a cacophony of pot banging in the country's main cities such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia – a traditional sign of protest in Latin America.
Brazil's average daily Covid-19 death toll has more than tripled since the start of the year to 2,364, currently the highest worldwide.
Experts say the explosion is fuelled by a local variant of the virus that is believed to be more contagious.
In a new warning sign, the prosecutor general's office said Tuesday the Health Ministry had told it that medical oxygen supplies were at "worrying" levels in six of Brazil's 27 states.
One of Brazil's main oxygen suppliers, the White Martins company, said it was racing to keep up with an "exponential increase" in demand of up to 300 percent in some regions, prosecutors said in a statement.
São Paulo, Brazil's most populous state and industrial hub, said Monday it would set up an emergency oxygen plant within 10 days in partnership with brewing company Ambev to supply overstretched hospitals.
The state, population 46 million, has been hit hard by the new wave of Covid-19.
Globo TV reported last week that at least 135 people had died in São Paulo with confirmed or suspected cases of the virus while waiting in line for intensive care unit beds.
In the capital Brasilia, more than 400 people are currently waiting in line for ICU beds. Videos circulating online show bodies piled in hospital corridors awaiting transfer to the capital's overflowing morgues.
The six states whose oxygen supplies are the most critical are Acre and Rondonia in the northwest, Mato Grosso in the center-west, Amapa in the north, and Ceara and Rio Grande do Norte in the northeast, prosecutors said.
Brazil has now registered 12.1 million confirmed Covid-19 infections, which is also the second-highest worldwide, after the United States.
by Jordi Miro, AFP