Photograph: Sergio Lima/AFP/Getty Images

The politicization of the coronavirus crisis and the Brazilian government’s deliberate “torpedoing” of social distancing efforts has condemned South America’s largest country to a historic tragedy that will most punish the poor, Brazil’s most respected medical voice has said.

As Brazil’s death toll surpassed that of Italy, Drauzio Varella told the Guardian that historians would be unkind to President Jair Bolsonaro, who is facing international condemnation for his handling of the pandemic.

“I think history will ascribe to him a level of guilt that I really wouldn’t want for myself,” said Varella, an oncologist, author and broadcaster who is a household name thanks to decades of public health activism.

Related: Brazil overtakes Italy as country with third-highest coronavirus deaths

Only two countries, the US and the UK, have lost more lives, and Brazil seems poised to overtake the latter. Brazil has confirmed 615,000 cases, second only to the US.

“Because in Brazil we are already the third country in the world in terms of deaths, we will soon become the second, and we are going to come close to the level of mortality in the US, which has 330 million citizens – that’s 60% larger than Brazil’s population,” predicted Varella.

“The situation couldn’t be worse. It just couldn’t.”

He added: “I’ve the feeling our country is living through a tragedy – and that this tragedy is going to be so much more severe for the poorest,” who often lived in cramped, precarious conditions and had no choice but to go out to work and use packed public transport.

Related: Lockdowns leave poor Latin Americans with impossible choice: stay home or feed families

Brazil has officially suffered 34,021 Covid-19 deaths since confirming its first fatality in mid-March and on Thursday registered a daily record of 1,473 fatalities.

That means that a Brazilian is now dying to Covid-19 every minute, the Folha de São Paulo newspaper noted on Friday’s front page.

Varella, 77, who is widely revered for his work in Brazil’s overcrowded prisons, said a tragedy of this scale could have been avoided had Bolsonaro’s administration reacted differently to an epidemic that reached South America after many other parts of the world.

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Drauzio Varella. Photograph: J Vespa/WireImage

“Our country had the time to prepare for the epidemic and didn’t prepare – and, when the epidemic did arrive, although some measures that could have had an impact in terms of isolation were adopted … this was torpedoed by the federal government.”

Varella said warring politicians had given Brazil’s 210 million citizens “conflicting signals – with governors and mayors promoting the need for isolation, and the federal government calling this an outrage that would destroy the economy and cause more people to die of hunger than from the disease”.

“This is a ridiculous vision,” Varella added. “And this has created a very difficult outlook for the country … we are now reaping the results of this policy of antagonism, of the politicization of the epidemic – which is the worst situation possible.”

Varella said Bolsonaro – who has repeatedly flouted health ministry recommendations by visiting shops and attending protests and even a barbecue – shouldered particular responsibility for the confusion.

“It’s not that we have an ideological debate. No. The president has simply been going out on to the streets every weekend to draw crowds, without a mask, and challenging the need for isolation. This has virtually become government policy,” he said.

Political instability had also played a role in the botched response, which contrasts with Brazil’s agile and inventive reaction to past health crises such as the 2015 Zika epidemic and HIV in the 90s.

“We have lost two health ministers during this crisis and we now have an interim minister. This hasn’t happened anywhere else in the world.”

Varella, who has spent recent years hunting for medicines of the future in remote corners of the Amazon, praised Brazil’s “SUS” public health service, which was partly inspired by Britain’s NHS, for preventing an even greater catastrophe.

Related: Bolsonaro’s anti-science response to coronavirus appals Brazil’s governors

Bolsonaro, a far-right populist who models himself on Donald Trump, has defended his opposition to quarantine measures by claiming he is defending the livelihoods of Brazilian workers.

“We can’t go on like this. Nobody can take it any more,” Bolsonaro said on Thursday as he again questioned shutdowns imposed by governors and mayors.

“The collateral impact will be far greater than those people who unfortunately lost their lives because of these last three months here,” Bolsonaro claimed.

Varella said that view that was mistaken – and warned moves to reopen the economy risked further aggravating “a very profound crisis”.

“The truth is we’re relaxing [the quarantine] at a point when the number of cases is in full ascent … without any security.

“We will pay the price for what is happening now – having more people in the streets, the crowds. In two or three weeks the number of cases will rise. There’s no magic to it. There’s no solution or something that means Brazil will be different,” he warned.



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