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What The Delta Variant And Vaccinations Look Like In Brazil, South Africa And Israel


While the entire world is going through this pandemic, different countries and regions are experiencing it differently. And we're going to talk now about what the situation looks like in a few different places - South Africa, Brazil and Israel and the Palestinian territories. Like the U.S., they are dealing with the more contagious delta variant. And while the vaccine is successful at preventing serious illness and death, many people can't get vaccinated. We're joined now by NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, Eyder Peralta in Cape Town and Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro.

Good to have all three of you here.




SHAPIRO: To start with you, Phil, Brazil's reported the second most COVID deaths of any country right behind the U.S. The death toll there is above half a million. So what is happening in Brazil right now?

REEVES: Well, things are slightly better than they were - for example, back in April, when on one day, the Brazilians recorded more than 4,000 deaths in one day. Now the daily average is just over a thousand, but that's still high. New cases are going up, and there are a lot of them - more than 40,000 yesterday. So it's serious, especially as the vaccination program here is stumbling along and has, in some cities, had to be temporarily suspended because of logistical problems with supplies. And the delta variant is here. Not many cases at this point - 170 according to the health ministry - but it is here.

Brazilians are getting angry. They're getting angry about the way the government of President Jair Bolsonaro has responded in particular. You'll remember he was a denialist at the beginning of this thing. They're angry over the way he's bungled vaccine purchases, of allegations of government scams in vaccine purchases as well. And tens of thousands of them, four times in the last few months, have taken to the streets to protest.

SHAPIRO: Now, you say less than a quarter of Brazil's population has been vaccinated. In South Africa, the rates are even lower. Eyder, what are the trends there right now?

PERALTA: Look, right now we're seeing lots of deaths - 3,000 over the past week. But we are just coming out of a third wave that was driven by the delta variant. Just last week, the government lifted some of the toughest restrictions. But there are still reminders everywhere that this pandemic is ongoing. There's still a nighttime curfew here. Gatherings are restricted. Masks are mandated. Every public space seemingly is spraying you down as you come in with hand sanitizer, and they're taking your temperature. Luckily, the vaccination effort seems to be finding its footing, but it's clear that it's going to take a long time to get back to normal.

SHAPIRO: Daniel, you're in Jerusalem, and Israel was ahead of the curve on vaccines. What impact is the delta variant having there now?

ESTRIN: Well, cases are on the rise. Serious infections have more than doubled just in the last week. And that is happening even with a majority of Israel vaccinated. Though, we know that overall you're better protected with a vaccine than without. But the rising number of cases here is concerning, so now the rule is that everyone must wear a mask indoors. And then you have a million Israelis who are not vaccinated yet. And Israel is trying to pressure them to get the shots. So starting Thursday, if you're not vaccinated, you will not be allowed entry into events, into movie theaters, even houses of worship, unless you show a negative COVID test.

So that's in Israel. Then in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, the thing is is that vaccines are available, but most eligible Palestinians have not gone to get vaccinated. So the International Committee of the Red Cross has social media influencers spreading messages, trying to teach about the vaccine. Officials are even bringing vaccines to mosques.

REEVES: Daniel mentioned there Israel's vaccine success, and it's interesting because if you look at most of South America, you know, that stands in strong contrast to that. Most nations here are not very far ahead with their vaccination programs, but there are a couple of star performers - Chile and Uruguay. Chile is a particularly interesting case. Both these countries now have 63% or so of their populations fully vaccinated. But if you look at Chile, back in April, they had about a third of the population fully vaccinated, and they were getting international plaudits for their program. And yet 97% of their hospitals' intensive care units were occupied. The place was awash with new cases, and the health system was struggling and, in some cases, collapsed. Now, however, they are reaping the rewards. Yesterday, they recorded their lowest daily new infection rate since October. The number was well below 1,000.

SHAPIRO: Phil, you've described some of the challenges to vaccinating people in Brazil, but Eyder, tell us why it's been so difficult to get vaccination numbers up in South Africa and other parts of the continent.

PERALTA: Yeah, I mean, look, in South Africa, less than 5% of people are fully vaccinated. But here, this isn't a case of a country that has badly managed this pandemic. It's just the opposite. South Africa reacted very early and effectively, and they have tried to buy the vaccines. They've tried to make the vaccine. But rich countries have hoarded much of the supply, and there's just not enough for South Africa. But this seems to be changing. Big shipments of vaccines are starting to come in, and South African-made Johnson & Johnson vaccines have just started rolling out of a factory not far from where I am.

But again, talking about global pressures, even some of those vaccines that are being made here will have to be shipped to Europe. So the bottom line is that South Africa is a perfect example of just how hard it is to compete for these vaccines when you're a middle-income country. And there's great demand for vaccines here. Vaccination sites are mobbed. There are lines around the block right now of people who are waiting hours for their jab right now in many vaccination sites.

SHAPIRO: It's such a contrast with Israel, where the vast majority of the population has been vaccinated. And Daniel, I understand they're considering whether to offer booster shots.

ESTRIN: That's right - booster shots for the general population, starting with older people. They're already giving booster shots to people with weak immune systems. But this is posing a huge dilemma in Israel. You know, Israel was the first to vaccinate most of its population, but that means it's also the first facing this question of whether boosters are truly needed. It's been about seven months since the first Israelis were vaccinated with Pfizer, and some studies here suggest that the vaccine's protection has waned over time. And so Israel faces this alone. No other countries have rolled out booster shots on a wide scale. The data is still preliminary.

But leaders are under pressure here not to force more lockdowns, and so there's a lot of pressure to approve booster shots. And health officials are meeting tonight to discuss this. So I think when you look at Israel throughout the pandemic, it's been a case study. First, it was looked at as an example of vaccine disparity with Israelis getting shots early and Palestinians being very far behind. And now Israel could show us a glimpse into the future of what other countries, if they do manage to vaccinate their populations - what they'll face. It might not be enough.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Daniel Estrin in Jerusalem, Eyder Peralta in Cape Town and Philip Reeves in Rio de Janeiro.

Thanks to all three of you.

REEVES: You're welcome.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.