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Misinformation, racial disparities among aggravating COVID-19 factors in U.S. and Brazil

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Brazil joined the U.S. to become the second country in the world to record over half a million COVID-19 deaths on June 16. Both countries were among the hardest hit during the pandemic, recording over 20 million cases each. Vaccinations efforts are underway, with the U.S. having now vaccinated over 49% of its population and Brazil almost 40%

The Daily spoke to experts in global health and Latin American policy who weighed in on the countries’ handling of the pandemic. Misinformation, mixed responses from the government and racial disparities in healthcare contributed to the record number of deaths in both countries, according to experts. 

Brazil and the U.S. faced vast misinformation campaigns promoted by their leaders — presidents Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump — according to Center for International Security and Cooperation deputy director Harold Trinkunas M.A. ’93 Ph.D. ’99. “Both promoted treatments that were shown to not be effective, such as hydroxychloroquine, and generally dismissed COVID as a major threat,” he said. 

The similarities also extend to the governments’ lack of cohesiveness in tackling the pandemic, said professor of medicine and Center for Innovation in Global Health director Michele Barry. 

“The responses, unfortunately for both countries, were coordinated at the state and local levels, rather than at the federal level,” Barry said, adding that if both countries put federal mandates into action, their respective populations would have been safeguarded to a greater extent.

Trinkunas said that the U.S. and Brazil, which both have histories of slavery, consequently have large Black populations that have historically faced discrimination in many facets of life, including healthcare. The CDC reports that Black individuals are much more likely to be infected, hospitalized or die of COVID-19 in the U.S.

“All over the world, disadvantaged people have been neglected by their governments and by the privileged sectors of society,” said professor of epidemiology and population health John Ioannidis. “These disadvantaged groups suffered a high load of deaths.”

In addition, the countries have faced challenges in their vaccine rollouts. “Both countries have significant populations that are either COVID deniers or anti-vaccine,” Trinkunas said. The World Health Organization in 2019 recognized vaccine hesitancy as one of the 10 greatest threats to global health

Brazil and the U.S. have stark differences as well. The shortcomings of Brazil’s universal healthcare system — which mainly provides preventative medicine — and limited access to private health care for poorer communities contributed to the country’s large number of COVID cases and deaths, Trinkunas said.

Ioannidis added that Brazil has a large population of poor people who live in congested, suboptimal housing that can be exposed to and infected by the virus. Poverty in Brazil leads to poor living conditions, higher rates of transmission and death.

Ioannidis added that vaccine deployment was much faster in the U.S. than in Brazil; faster vaccine rollout is key to economic recovery, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development reported.

Looking to the future, experts believe that all governments — not just those of Brazil and the U.S. — need to capitalize on existing healthcare systems, heed the advice of healthcare professionals and combat misinformation.

To safeguard the public, the Brazilian government should capitalize off the existing healthcare infrastructure, according to Trinkunas; when the H1N1 virus spread in 2009, Brazil vaccinated 100 million people in 90 days. Trinkunas added that “the United States is doing some of this right now by trying to rebuild the public health infrastructure and by pursuing science-based policies under the current administration.” 

Barry said that it was good the U.S. massively funded vaccine development under the Trump administration, adding that Brazil did not have as much money for research and development. 

Ioannidis added that governments “need to respond to crises with a calm and united effort.”  

Countries also need to combat misinformation to ensure that the public is educated on methods vital to safeguarding their lives, according to Trinkunas. He said that “social media and online channels are very important for the transmission of disinformation,” and that governments need to use the internet to spread information to keep the public safe.

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