Photograph: Pilar Olivares/Reuters
Brazil has overtaken Britain as the country with the world’s second-highest Covid-19 death toll after a further 843 deaths pushed its total to 41,901.
The tally was published on Friday night by a coalition of news outlets which has been compiling independent statistics since Brazil’s health ministry was accused of seeking to conceal the full figures last week.
Related: Brazil condemned to historic tragedy by Bolsonaro’s virus response – top doctor
According to the British government 41,481 lives have been lost in the UK since late January although the number rises to more than 50,000 when suspected cases are included. Brazil’s death toll is also considered an underestimate.
Only in the US, where the official death toll stands at more than 116,000, have more died.
Medical experts have voiced despair at what they call Jair Bolsonaro’s calamitous response to the pandemic.
The Trump-admiring former army captain has repeatedly downplayed Covid-19 as media “hysteria” and “a bit of a cold” and on 12 April, with the official death toll at 1,223, falsely claimed: “This matter of the virus appears to be going away.”
Since then more than 40,000 Brazilians have died yet the far-right populist has continued to undermine social distancing by attending rallies and visiting shops. Two health ministers have been forced from government in under a month after clashing with Bolsonaro over coronavirus.
Jair Bolsonaro waves to supporters during a rally in Brasília on 17 May. Photograph: Sergio Lima/AFP via Getty Images
During a live broadcast on Thursday Bolsonaro – who has defended his response as designed to protect the economy and jobs – again minimized the tragedy.
He accused Brazilian journalists of focusing too much on the dead in order to produce “funeral TV” and claimed one former health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, had produced “ficticious” Covid-19 statistics in a bid to keep Brazilians at home. “The aim was to disseminate terror.”
Bolsonaro also insinuated his rivals were deliberately exaggerating the number of Covid-19 deaths in their states. “What do they hope to gain from this? Political benefits, that’s all it can be. They’re taking advantage of people who are dying to profit politically and blame the federal government,” Bolsonaro claimed.
Daniel Dourado, a public health expert and lawyer from the University of São Paulo, said the president shouldered overwhelming responsibility for the scale of the catastrophe.
“Bolsonaro has played a pitiful role. I’ve not heard of a single country whose president has hampered the fight against the epidemic so much. It’s as if he still hasn’t grasped the danger of the situation. He doesn’t even express sympathy to the families … It’s as if his policies are being driven by a [Freudian] death drive.”
Dourado added: “If we carry on like this … it’s possible we might even catch up with the US in the number of cases. It seems preposterous to say this now. But if Brazil reopens and does what the federal government wants … things could deteriorate very fast. So I’m really worried. As incredible as it might seem, with [about] 1,000 deaths a day we could still be underestimating the impact of this pandemic.”
The US has recorded more than 2 million infections, according to Johns Hopkins University, while Brazil has registered 829,902.
This week a University of Washington projection found another 100,000 Brazilian lives could be lost by August, meaning Brazil might overtake the US as the country with the highest death toll.
Brazil’s Covid-19 crisis is playing out against the backdrop of one of the most bitter and bizarre political crises since its return to democracy in the 1980s.
Federal police are investigating at least two of Bolsonaro’s sons for suspected corruption and links to a fake news racket. Last month investigators raided addresses linked to key Bolsonaristas including a former Femen activist turned anti-abortion-militant and a multimillionaire retail magnate famed for wearing garish yellow and green suits and building Statue of Liberty replicas outside his stores.
Related: Bolsonaro supporter desecrates Brazil beach memorial for 40,000 coronavirus victims
In an apparent bid to stave off the threat of Bolsonaro’s impeachment or the voiding of his 2018 election, loyalists, including top military figures, have played up the threat of military intervention against congress and the supreme court. Last month Bolsonaro’s politician son Eduardo – who is Steve Bannon’s point man in South America – warned Brazil was heading for a “moment of rupture”.
Luís Francisco Carvalho Filho, the former head of Brazil’s Special Commission on Political Deaths and Disappearances, said he was deeply worried about Bolsonaro’s authoritarian vision and the long-term threat he posed to Brazilian democracy.
“I was born in 1957 and I think this is the most grave moment my generation has faced. Never before has a Brazilian head of state acted with such contempt for the institutional system,” Carvalho Filho said.
“Even the last presidents of the military regime played by the rules of the game. Bolsonaro is a man who tries every single day to do away with the rules of the game.”