The novel coronavirus death toll in Brazil surpassed 20,000 on Thursday, after a record number of fatalities in a 24-hour period, the health ministry said.
The country is the epicenter of the outbreak in Latin America, and its highest one-day toll of 1,188 pushed the overall death tally to 20,047.
Brazil has now recorded more than 310,000 cases, with experts saying a lack of testing means the real figures are probably much higher.
With its curve of infections and deaths rising sharply, the country of 210 million ranks third in the world in terms of total cases, behind the United States and Russia.
The death toll — the sixth highest in the world — has doubled in just 11 days, according to ministry data.
Despite the worrying spread of the disease, far-right President Jair Bolsonaro on Thursday continued his calls to scrap lockdown measures to revive a flagging economy.
But almost all of the country’s 27 states are under some sort of lockdown order, though Brazilians are wearying of the restrictions in place since the end of March.
– ‘Bolsonarovirus’ –
Sao Paulo state, the economic and cultural capital of Brazil, is by far the most affected, with about a quarter of the country’s deaths and infections.
Sao Paulo Governor Joao Doria, who has clashed often with the president over containment measures, has said the country has to fight both coronavirus and “Bolsonarovirus.”
But Bolsonaro and the governors sounded a conciliatory note Thursday as they held a video conference on coordinating the response to the pandemic.
The president called it “a great victory for the Brazilian people.”
Doria, for his part, urged unity.
“Brazil needs to be united. If we’re at war, we all face defeat. Let’s go together in peace, Mr President, together for Brazil,” he said.
Hospitals in Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and various states across northern and northeastern Brazil are near collapse.
The authorities have been racing to set up field hospitals with more beds, but are struggling to build them fast enough.
– ‘At war’ –
Bolsonaro, who has famously compared the virus to a “little flu,” appears to have pinned his hopes on the anti-malaria drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine to stop it.
He has gone through two health ministers since the pandemic began, and the crucial ministry is now in the hands of an interim, army general Eduardo Pazuello.
The last health minister, Nelson Teich, resigned last week after less than a month on the job, reportedly after clashing with Bolsonaro over the president’s insistence on widespread chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine use.
The drugs have shown inconclusive results against coronavirus, and scientists say further studies are needed to determine whether they are safe and effective for COVID-19.
But like his US counterpart Donald Trump, to whom he is often compared, Bolsonaro sees them as potential wonder drugs.
No sooner was Teich out the door than Bolsonaro’s government recommended Wednesday that all COVID-19 patients receive one of the drugs as soon as they show symptoms.
“There is still no scientific proof, but (chloroquine) is being monitored and used in Brazil and around the world,” Bolsonaro tweeted afterward.
“We are at war.”