New cases of the coronavirus are overwhelming hospitals, morgues and cemeteries across Brazil as the country veers closer to becoming one of the world’s pandemic hot spots.
Medical officials in Rio de Janeiro and at least four other major cities have warned that their hospital systems are on the verge of collapse, or are already too overwhelmed to take any more patients.
Health experts expect the number of infections in the country of 211 million people will be much higher than what has been reported because of insufficient, delayed testing.
Amid the crisis, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government has been riven with internal dissent.
Justice Minister Sergio Moro, a popular crusader against corruption, resigned on Friday (local time) alleging political interference in the federal police force.
Mr Moro’s resignation was prompted by Mr Bolsonaro’s removal of the federal police chief.
Meanwhile, Mr Bolsonaro has shown no sign of wavering from his insistence that COVID-19 is a relatively minor disease and that broad social-distancing measures are not needed to stop it.
He has said only Brazilians at high risk should be isolated.
So far, the health ministry has confirmed nearly 53,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 3,600 deaths.
By official counts, the country had its worst day yet on Thursday, with about 3,700 new cases and more than 400 deaths, and Friday was nearly as grim.
Experts warned that paltry testing means the true number of infections is far greater.
And because it can take a long time for tests to be processed, the current numbers actually reflect deaths that happened one or two weeks ago, said Domingos Alves, adjunct professor of social medicine at the University of Sao Paulo.
“We are looking at a photo of the past,” he said last week.
“The number of cases in Brazil is, therefore, probably even greater than what we are predicting.”
Scientists from the University of Sao Paulo, University of Brasilia and other institutions say the true number of people infected with the virus as of this week is probably as much as 587,000 to 1.1 million people.
The health ministry said in a report earlier this month that it has the capacity to test 6,700 people per day – a far cry from the roughly 40,000 it will need when the virus peaks.
In Rio state, all but one of seven public hospitals equipped to treat COVID-19 are full and can only accept new patients once others have either recovered or died, according to the press office of the health secretariat.
On Saturday, the city of Rio plans to open its first field hospital, with 200 beds, half reserved for intensive care.
Another hospital erected beside the historic Maracana football stadium will offer 400 beds starting next month.
Mr Bolsonaro has continued to dismiss health officials’ dire predictions about the virus’s spread in the country.
Last week, the president fired a health minister who had supported tough anti-virus measures and replaced him with an advocate for reopening the economy.
His stance largely echoes that of his counterpart and ally US president Donald Trump, who has been stressing the need to put people back to work as unemployment figures reach Depression-era levels.
Unlike Mr Bolsonaro, however, Mr Trump has moderated his scepticism about the virus.
The fight to re-open business “is a risk that I run,” Mr Bolsonaro said at the swearing-in of his newly appointed health minister, Nelson Teich.
If the pandemic escalates, the president said, “it lands on my lap”.