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Brazil Has The 2nd-Highest Number Of The Coronavirus Cases In The World


The U.S. is the undisputed leader in a contest no one wants to win. This country has by far more reported cases of the coronavirus than any other nation in the world. The number now tops 1.6 million people. Second on the list, not a country in Asia where the virus first appeared or in Europe where hot spots erupted in March and April, Brazil now holds the world's No. 2 tally of cases. And the U.S. just banned nearly all travel from Brazil. NPR's Philip Reeves is in Rio de Janeiro and joins us now.

Hey, Phil.


CHANG: So give us an idea of how things are in Brazil right now.

REEVES: Well, things are bleak, and they're getting bleaker. The authorities are having a real struggle to get people to stay off the streets, to stay home and to wear masks. We've been seeing social isolation generally weaken even as infections and deaths are soaring. And it's no longer about cities and towns here anymore. COVID-19 is also spreading into Brazil's interior, including deep into the Amazon rainforest. Indigenous people there are dying in alarming numbers. For a lot of them, the nearest hospital capable of handling a serious case of COVID-19 is often hundreds of miles away.

CHANG: Right.

REEVES: And, you know, and in large parts of the country, health systems are hanging by a thread. I mean, in this city Rio where I am right now, there's an alarming shortage of intensive care beds. In the public health system, reportedly, there isn't one vacant bed. The authorities here are supposed to have erected some field hospitals and have them up and running by now. But almost all of these have been delayed. So the situation is really worrying. And it's really worrying particularly for the most vulnerable members of the population, people who live in favelas, the heavily crowded low-income neighborhoods where community officials are reporting several hundred deaths.

CHANG: Well, Brazil's president, Jair Bolsonaro, has long derided the coronavirus. He's called it the little flu. Does it seem like he's changed his tune as the cases keep mounting there?

REEVES: No, he hasn't changed his tune. He's against broad isolation because the economy's crashing, and he wants people to get back to work. That's one thing. But Bolsonaro is also systematically subverting social distancing. On Saturday, he left the presidential palace in the capital, Brasilia, to stop at a hot dog stall where people, of course, began to gather around him, as he knew they would. Yesterday, he came out again to greet a crowd of supporters and dived in without a mask. He seems to relish attracting headlines with this sort of swaggering behavior. He's shown very little sympathy for victims. The other day he remarked that more Brazilians are dying of fear than from the virus. And now, you know, to handle a national emergency of these unprecedented dimensions, you need consensus, you need leadership, you need unity. Bolsonaro seems to be contriving to achieve the exact opposite. And, remember, he's lost two health ministers in a month. The job is now being done by stand-in, a general from the army.

CHANG: Wow. Well, this travel ban from the U.S., I mean, how big of a blow is that to Bolsonaro? Because he has long boasted his - you know, he has close ties to the Trump administration. So how has he interpreted this latest move?

REEVES: Well, officials from the Bolsonaro government are shrugging it off. They point out that President Trump's barred entry to other countries that are allies, including the British, European nations and so on, and that this is not about bilateral relations or diplomacy. You know, it's about trying to contain a global pandemic. And lots of countries in this region have shut their borders. Some of Bolsonaro's opponents, however, particularly on the left, are honing in on this. They're portraying it as a humiliating snub. They've long been critical of Bolsonaro's deep admiration for President Trump and his decision to realign Brazil's foreign policy by tilting it strongly in Washington's direction. They don't believe Brazil's benefiting sufficiently from that. And they cite this as another example.

CHANG: Well, that is NPR's Philip Reeves in Rio.

Thank you so much, Phil.

REEVES: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.
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