São Paulo (AFP) – The night before New Years Eve in Rio de Janeiro, thousands of revelers were wearing their swimsuits at the famous Ipanema Beach for some drinks at the beachfront. It was one of many outdoor parties held along the vast Brazilian coast since the outbreak of the summer heat, and as the death toll from COVID-19 soared.
“It was so crowded,” said a maintenance worker in a luxurious apartment block across the street. “You couldn’t even set foot on the beach.” “And it wasn’t only at night; the beach was full during the day as well. Nobody wore a mask!” He added, insisting that his name not be used for fear that the owner of the building would punish him for speaking with a reporter.
The explosion of celebrations came just before a pandemic struck: Brazil topped 200,000 deaths on Thursday, and 1,524 in the past 24 hours have risen to a total of 20,098 epidemic cases, according to data released by the Brazilian Ministry of Health. It is the second-highest toll in the world, after the United States, according to a Johns Hopkins University database.
Many Brazilians have been battling quarantines for months, going to bars or small gatherings with friends, but massive outbursts have been few and far between since the pandemic began. The celebrations began after the Southern Hemisphere summer began on December 21.
While several countries imposed new restrictions to curb the spread of the virus in mid-December, the administration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro granted its blessing to a fun holiday in the sun. Tourism Minister Gelson Machado told Govim Ban radio that gatherings of up to 300 people are fully acceptable. The decision to impose restrictions is the prerogative of local governments. Some of those who did saw their rules being ignored
A prominent YouTuber organized a party near the shore of a river for hundreds of people in the state of Alagoas, in the northeastern region of the country. Days later, local media reported that 47 people, among the unmasked guests and employees, had contracted COVID-19. At least two were admitted into intensive care units.
The five-day New Year’s Eve party attracted 150 people near the soccer star Neymar’s property outside Rio, though he has denied any association with the VIP event.
Outside of Sao Paulo, Bolsonaro kicked off 2021 by jumping off a boat and swimming toward an unmasked crowd of fans.
In the city of Bertioga on the coast of Sao Paulo, police used tear gas to disperse a celebration in the early hours of New Year’s Day.
Right before the partying, it was really getting worse. Domingos Alves, an assistant professor of social medicine at the University of São Paulo, told The Associated Press this week that this week or so, it will only get worse.
Alves, who leads a team of researchers tracking COVID-19 data, warned that the daily confirmed cases in several states have already exceeded the numbers seen during Brazil’s peak in July.
Intensive care units in several cities have been exposed again to COVID-19 patients. The mayor of Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas – which one local study speculated had reached herd immunity after the first brutal wave – declared a 180-day state of emergency on Tuesday and suspended all juvenile permits. State authorities have banned all non-essential activities for 15 days in most parts of the city
The city, which has a population of 2.2 million, has recorded 3,550 deaths since the beginning of the epidemic, and the number of cemeteries of Covid-19 has also increased. Outside at least one cemetery, cars lined up with people waiting to bury their loved ones.
Vanda Ortega, a volunteer nurse with the indigenous community in Manaus, told the AP that the city had adopted a laissez-faire approach to the virus, first during local elections in November with large gatherings and long lines of voters.
“Then we had the festive season, with lots of secret parties,” said Ortega, who belongs to the Witutu race. “We live in an area where there are cabins for the wealthy. They have parties every week.”
Many mayors on the coast of Sao Paulo have ignored holiday restrictions imposed by their governor. In at least 12 cities, mayors have kept shops, hotels and beaches open to tourists.
Images of traffic jams and crowded beaches, with largely unconvincing crowds, were so disturbing that EU Commissioner Paolo Gentiloni expressed disbelief on Twitter, saying, “I’ve seen shameful pictures from Brazil.”
And Bolsonaro – who has consistently reduced the risks of the virus despite contracting himself – indicated in his New Year’s swim that he would continue to ignore the preventive measures observed in most countries.
“I dived with a mask so as not to catch the Coronavirus from the little fish,” he joked a few days later outside the presidential palace.
Even some Brazilians who consider themselves cautious let their guards down. Ricardo Santos, a 46-year-old soccer fan, says he covers his face every time he steps out, carries a hand sanitizer in his bag and notices social distancing. But on Wednesday, he and dozens of other Palmeiras fans hit a bar in downtown Sao Paulo to watch their team play.
“I spent New Years with only two friends who live in the same block. I take precautions. But sometimes you have to accept a little bit of risk to preserve your mental health as well.”
Back at Rio’s Ipanema Beach, Joao Battista Baria, 57, said he blamed the authorities for not protecting their poorest residents.
“Everyone talks about these beach parties, but congestion is also happening on the bus and on the subway,” said Baria while cleaning the folding chairs that tourists and residents rent to enjoy the summer sunshine. People come to the beach because they choose to. I need to take the bus to go to work. ”