A new study appears to support claims made last year that Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro was guilty of crimes against humanity in dismissing COVID-19 as a “little flu”.
In October last year, a group of Brazilian senators asserted that President Bolsonaro intentionally allowed thousands of people to die from COVID-19 by downplaying its significance.
The Brazilian President is considered by many to be one of the world’s most vocal COVID-19 deniers, and now a new independent study of 853 counties in Minas Gerais state finds counties that voted for Bolsonaro in the 2018 election are more likely to have higher incidences and death rates from COVID-19.
The study is to be presented at this year’s European Congress of Clinical Microbiology & Infectious Diseases (ECCMID) in Lisbon, Portugal (from April 23 to 26), by researchers from the Minas Gerais Society of Infectious Diseases and the Minas Gerais Association of Epidemiology and Infection Control (the Sociedade Mineira de Infectologia and the Associacao Mineira de Epidemiologia e Controle de Infeccoes).
They show a correlation between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s denialist attitude to COVID-19 and higher COVID-19 incidence and mortality.
The study, involving 853 counties in Minas Gerais (the second most populous state, located in south-eastern Brazil), finds that in Bolsonaro-voting counties, COVID-19 cases and deaths were substantially higher than in counties where Bolsonaro lost the 2018 presidential election vote.
Dr. Carlos Starling from Sociedade Mineira de Infectologia, said: “The role of politics had a critical impact on COVID-19 responses to the pandemic in Brazil from the outset.
“President Jair Bolsonaro has denied COVID-19 severity, promoted treatments without evidence of efficacy, and discouraged social distancing, the use of masks, local lockdowns and other protective measures, which has likely resulted in higher infection rates and deaths from COVID-19 among his supporters.”
The death toll from COVID-19 in Brazil has passed 662,000, the third-highest reported toll of any country in the world, after the United States and India.
In the new study, researchers investigated the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines in reducing virus transmission and deaths from COVID-19 in 853 counties in Minas Gerais. They also explored the impact of the President’s denialist attitude to COVID-19 on vaccine uptake and COVID-19 cases and deaths, based on whether Bolsonaro had won or lost the 2018 presidential election in these counties.
Using data on confirmed cases of COVID-19 and deaths, vaccination rates, and 2018 election results from official government websites, the researchers calculated the COVID-19 incidence rate (new cases per 100,000 residents in the last 14 days) and mortality rate (deaths per 1,000,000 residents in the last 14 days) for each county between January 21, 2021 (when vaccination started in Brazil), and November 10, 2021.
Results showed that by November 10, 2021, over half the population (more than 55 percent) in most counties (682/853) had been fully vaccinated with either Astrazeneca (41 percent), Pfizer (32 percent), or Coronavac (28 percent).
Overall, the analyses found that the vaccination rate between January and November was similar between counties. As the percentage of the population that was fully vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 increased over time, COVID-19 incidence and mortality rates consistently declined.
However, in counties where Bolsonaro won the electoral vote, the COVID-19 incidence rate was 30 percent higher (7.6 percent; 1,284,454 cases/16,961,800 residents of 445 counties) than in counties where he lost the vote (5.6 percent; 249,704 cases/4,450,502 residents of 408 counties).
Moreover, the COVID-19 death rate was 60 percent higher in counties with the highest electoral support for Bolsonaro compared to those with the least support (212 deaths by COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants versus 132 deaths by COVID-19 per 100,000 inhabitants).
Researchers also performed a more detailed evaluation comparing the impact of vaccination on COVID-19 incidence and death rates in 33 counties with more than 100,000 residents, and discovered a negative correlation between vaccination and COVID-19 cases and deaths in all 33 counties (ie, counties with the lowest vaccination rates had the highest case incidence and mortality rates), except for five cities where there was a negative, but nonsignificant correlation between the full vaccination rate and the death rate.
Dr. Braulio Couto of the Associacao Mineira de Epidemiologia e Controle de Infeccoes said: “It’s likely that thousands of lives have been lost unnecessarily because President Bolsonaro dismissed COVID-19 as ‘a little flu’ and rallied against lockdowns, school closures and other protective measures.
“However, our results indicate that the Brazilian people have great trust in vaccines, and Bolsonaro’s falsehoods and doubts about COVID-19 vaccines did not prevent mass vaccination, with the increasing vaccination rate over time consistently reducing COVID-19 cases and deaths.”
The authors note that this is an ecological observational study and cannot prove that Bolsonaro’s denialist stance caused extra cases or deaths from COVID-19, but only suggest the possibility of such an effect.
The authors point to several limitations, including the ecological fallacy—that relationships that exist for groups are assumed to also be true for individuals—and they cannot rule out the possibility that other unmeasured factors like education levels and household income may have affected the results.
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