President Jair Bolsonaro wears an Indian headdress with the colors of Brazil and no face mask at an event in the countryside. Photo: AFP/Filipe Bispo/AGIF

Brazil topped four million Covid-19 cases on Thursday as health ministry officials said infections were beginning to slow in the world’s second worst-hit country.

Since the first case came to light on February 26, the South American colossus has registered more than 4.04 million infections and over 124,600 deaths, second only to the United States.

There were almost 44,000 new cases over the previous 24 hours, and 834 fatalities.

The health ministry said the number of infections were slightly reducing in recent days, amid hopes that the pandemic had peaked following months when the daily average of deaths was more than 1,000. 

Since the end of August, Brazil has averaged about 870 Covid-19 fatalities with 40,000 new infections a day.

But independent medical specialists urged caution.

“This is the beginning of what we hope is in fact an improving trend,” said Mauricio Sanchez, an epidemiologist at Brasilia University. 

However, he warned the trend was “very timid” and said the slowdown in cases should be maintained for two or three weeks to be able to draw any firm conclusions.

However, in such a vast, continent-sized country, the national curve could be skewed by what was in effect “27 different epidemics,” he said, referring to Brazil’s states.

Brazil has recorded a death rate of 589 per million inhabitants, but there is a huge difference between the figures in the north (746) and the south (309.)

Paulo Lotufo, professor of epidemiology at the University of Sao Paulo, said the numbers suggest that Brazil could be on the verge of improvement.

“In the last two months, we have seen a curve that mixes regions that are increasing, with others that are decreasing,” said Lotufo, pointing to spikes in the south and center-west, while cases were falling in the cities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, as well as in the north.

The experts warned the situation could suddenly worsen again if local and regional governments gave in to pressure from business groups to reopen the economy too soon and if social distancing measures were abandoned.

Last Sunday, the beaches of Rio de Janeiro were crowded with people without masks.

Fears of lost progress

Many Brazilian cities are now studying how and when to reopen schools. Bars, restaurants, gyms and churches have already reopened, albeit with strict social distancing rules.

Sanchez and Lotufo agree that Brazil could have avoided a large number of deaths if it had quickly implemented effective isolation measures and facilitated early access of the poorest to government subsidies.

“The most vulnerable people cannot stay at home working in their home office,” said Sanchez, who fears that the current signs of improvement will lead local governments and the general public to slacken off and that progress made in recent weeks will be lost.

Brazil’s containment strategy has been hampered by the lack of a coordinated approach as President Jair Bolsonaro has often argued against measures taken by state governors.

Even though he contracted the virus himself, Bolsonaro has continued to encourage his supporters to gather on his official engagements, even shaking hands with some despite not wearing a face mask.

He has often repeated his belief that Brazil’s economic collapse would be worse than the effects of the virus.

He has twice changed his health minister after disagreements over how to tackle the pandemic and Bolsonaro’s promotion of anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a treatment – despite scientists warning there is no proof it could be effective.

Brazil has suffered a record contraction of its economy, and the loss of nine million jobs.