When Brazil’s first death from coronavirus was reported in Sao Paulo on March 17, the city ordered schools and non-essential businesses shut and urged people to shelter in place. With the death toll in Brazil now over 38,000 and rising, stores and shopping malls in Sao Paulo are cracking their doors open for the first time in three months.
Rua Teodoro Sampaio, a traditionally bustling street lined with low-end furniture shops and stores selling musical instruments, slowly came back to life on Wednesday . A vendor blocks the entrance to Casa Santa Theresinha, a home furnishing store, providing hand sanitizer before shoppers can enter and ensuring they wear masks.
“We allow a maximum of five customers at a time,” says Flavio Almeida, the shop manager. “Before people would come and look around, spend time in the shop, now they come in, go directly to get what they are looking for and go straight to pay to leave as fast as possible. We are all scared, staff and customers, but what can we do, we all need to work.”
Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, is not alone. Several cities and towns have already experimented with relaxing social isolation measures. Rio de Janeiro, for example, is set to allow shopping malls to reopen on Thursday.
Officials insist the decision is based on improving conditions, like increasing availability of intensive care beds and a flattening infection curve in some places. But experts worry the rush to go back to some kind of normal here and across the country could just fuel transmissions and postpone a real recovery.
Brazil has the second-highest number of cases of Covid-19 in the world and is expected to surpass the UK in coming days as the country with the second-highest number of deaths after the United States. This week, the Pan American Health Organization warned the virus was still spreading “aggressively” in Brazil, as well as Peru and Chile, and that the Americas are now home to nearly half of all COVID-19 cases with more than 3.3 million infections.
Experts say these are far from the ideal conditions for relaxing restrictions in Sao Paulo and elsewhere in Brazil.
“They should wait at least another week to see if there is a consistent drop in cases. You need to tackle the transportation issue. If everyone continues to take crowded buses and metro, which is what is happening, it won’t work,” said Paulo Lotufo, an epidemiologist at the University of São Paulo.
In fact, the state of Sao Paulo registered a record number of deaths on Wednesday at 340 for the 24-hour period, bringing the total to 9,862. The total number of cases in the state, long considered the epicenter of the pandemic in Brazil, has topped 150,000 - roughly 20 percent of the total infections in the country.
Thanks to the addition of thousands of intensive care beds, Sao Paulo has managed to reduce occupancy to 69 percent in the state and 77 in the capital city, compared with 91 percent occupancy in just last month. But new cases and deaths remain high and experts warn there still isn’t a comprehensive testing and tracing system in place.
“We don’t have enough tests to guarantee the expansion of the reopening. The supply improved when compared to the beginning of the epidemic, but for a mass testing plan, we need to have a much larger number of tests and greater capacity for testing in the laboratories,” said Ana Freitas Ribeiro, epidemiologist at Emilio Ribas Hospital in São Paulo
According to Lotufo, Sao Paulo will likely have to retreat and order commerce closed again, the same thing that happened in the much smaller Brazilian cities of Sao Luiz and Betim.
“People are going to get infected, and then infect others. Hospitals will fill up. Business will run out of employees to work, the number of infections among health workers, security guards, and drivers will increase. Everything that we avoided with the isolation will happen,” he said.
Andreza dos Santos, 35, says occupancy at the frontline hospital where she works has declined considerably in the last week but she fears a second wave after Sao Paulo relaxes social distancing measures and reopens commerce. Dos Santos was infected and hospitalized with Covid-19 thanks to her work.
“I am scared, it is all too soon,” she says. “For us who have been infected and know how serious this illness can be, make us very scared. It is a disease that acts too fast on vital organs and we had very little time to act and treat.”
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, however, has been the biggest proponent of opening back up, insisting hunger and unemployment will kill more people than the virus itself. He has clashed with governors and even his own health ministers: the first one was fired and the second quit. Now, he has an army general sworn in as his interim minister.
Over the weekend, the government stopped reporting cumulative coronavirus deaths and cases with Bolsonaro arguing they didn’t reflect the current state of things in Brazil. The Supreme Court, however, ruled the ministry must provide the comprehensive data.
And this week, Bolsonaro lashed out at the World Health Organization on Twitter after its technical lead for coronavirus response suggested the spread of Covid-19 by asympomatic people was rare.
“The WHO now concludes that asymptomatic patients (the vast majority) have no potential to infect other people. Millions were locked up at home, lost their jobs, and negatively affected the economy,” he said. The WHO has clarified that asymptomatic transmission is little-studied and therefore remains “a major unknown.”
Bolsonaro has also threatened to cut funds to the WHO, just like his ally President Donald Trump.