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Brazilian protesters blame President Jair Bolsonaro for country's COVID death toll of 500,000

Anti-government protesters took to the streets in more than a score of cities across Brazil on Saturday as the nation's confirmed death toll from COVID-19 soared past half a million - a tragedy many critics blame on President Jair Bolsonaro's attempt to minimize the disease.

Thousands gathered in downtown Rio de Janeiro waving flags with slogans such as 'Get out Bolsonaro. Government of hunger and unemployment.'

'Brazil is experiencing a great setback. The country was an exemplary country for vaccination in the world. We have widely recognized institutions, but today we are in a sad situation', said Isabela Gouljor, a 20-year-old student who joined the protest in Rio.

Other marchers hoisted posters reading: '500 thousand deaths. It´s his fault,' alluding to Bolsonaro.

Only 11% of Brazilians are fully vaccinated and 29% have received a first dose, Health Ministry data shows. 

A man looks at a cardboard cutout of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in prisoner garb during a demonstration against Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Sao Paulo, Brazil

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - JUNE 19: A demonstrator holds a sign in the shape of a cross with the phrase '500,000 deaths' during a protest against Bolsonaro's administration on June 19, 2021 in Sao Paulo, Brazil

A demonstrator holds a sign that reads '500,000 deaths' during a protest against Bolsonaro's administration on June 19, 2021 in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Demonstrators hold signs that read in Portuguese; 'Impeachment now! Bolsonaro in prison' during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his handling of COVID-19

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attends a graduation ceremony at the Naval Academy, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on Saturday as protests raged in his country

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, pictured, is facing a probe for pandemic mismanagement as the country counts 500,022 deaths of COVID

A woman, wearing a protective face mask, holds a sign in the shape of a cross with a message that reads in Portuguese '500K deaths' during a protest against President Jair Bolsonaro

Similar marches took place in at least 22 or Brazil's 26 states, as well as in the Federal District, Brasilia. They were promoted by left-wing opposition parties who have been heartened by Bolsonaro's declining poll ratings with next year's presidential race looming.

'Get out Bolsonaro, genocidal,' yelled Rio demonstrators, some of them wearing t-shirts or masks with the image of former leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva - who leads Bolsonaro in some polls.

In São Paulo, protesters dropped red balloons as a tribute to the victims of the virus.

Bolsonaro's supporters have taken more often to the streets over the past month, in large part because many agree with his dismissal of restrictions meant to stifle the coronavirus and anger that lockdown measures have hurt businesses.

Critics say such messages, as well as Bolsonaro's promotion of disproven treatments such as hydroxychloroquine, have contributed to the soaring death toll and a sluggish vaccine campaign that has fully inoculated less than 12% of the population. 

The country of some 213 million people is registering nearly 100,000 new infections and 2,000 deaths a day.

A man, wearing a protective face mask, holds a sign with a message that reads in Portuguese; '500,000 deaths is genocide', during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his handling of the pandemic in Cuiaba, Brazil

People march holding a banner with a message that reads in Portuguese; 'Together, we are giants' during a demonstration against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A woman wearing a protective face mask holds a sign with a message that reads in Portuguese; '500,000, government of death' during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Rio de Janeiro

A protester holds a poster depicting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as Adolf Hitler and the Portuguese word for genocidal, during a demonstration against Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Demonstrators march holding a banner with a message that reads in Portuguese; 'Get out genocidal Bolsonaro and all your government' during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in Cuiaba, Brazil

A woman wearing a protective face mask marked with a message that reads in Portuguese: 'Get Out Bolsonaro' during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Demonstrators shouts slogans during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and economic policies they say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A woman wearing a protective face mask holds a sign with a message that reads in Portuguese; '500 k deaths! His fault!' during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A woman wears a plastic bag decorated with stickers depicting Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro as a virus, during a demonstration against Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

A demonstrator holds a sign with a message that reads in Portuguese; '500K deaths! His fault!' during a demonstration against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Demonstrators holding fake guns shaped like pencils, and a syringe, attend a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his handling of the pandemic in Cuiaba, Brazil

A woman, wearing a protective face mask, holds a sign in the shape of a cross with a message that reads in Portuguese;'500 k deaths', during a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his handling of the pandemic in Cuiaba, Brazil

A girl points at a mural featuring the face of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro during a protest against his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic along Paulista Avenue, in Sao Paulo, Brazil

Demonstrators protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and economic policies protesters say harm the interests of the poor and working class on Paulista Avenue, in Sao Paulo, Brazil

'For the leftists, putting their followers in the streets is a way of wearing Bolsonaro down for the election,' said Leandro Consentino, a political science professor at Insper, a university in Sao Paulo. 

'But at the same, time they are contradicting themselves and losing the discourse of maintaining health care, because they are causing the same agglomerations as Bolsonaro.'

Saturday's marches came a week after Bolsonaro led a massive motorcycle parade of supporters in Sao Paulo, though his allies and foes differ dramatically on the size of that event.

'Bolsonaro needs to show that he maintains significant support to give a message of strength to those who are investigating the actions of his government in Congress', Consentino said.

A special Senate committee is probing the Bolsonaro administration's pandemic response, highlighting delayed efforts to acquire vaccines while prioritizing unproven treatments for COVID-19.

Last month, a poll showed Bolsonaro's popularity has sunk to new lows with only 24% of Brazilians saying his administration is 'good' or 'great.' The same poll showed Bolsonaro's left wing rival, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, would win in a run-off vote if the 2022 elections were held today. 

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