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As Brazil tops 500,000 deaths, protests against president

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.

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 and economic policies protesters say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021. Brazil is approaching an official COVID-19 death toll of 500,000 — second-highest in the world. (AP PhotoBruna Prado)

Other marchers hoisted posters reading: “500 thousand deaths. It’s his fault,” alluding to 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.

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 and economic policies they say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021. Brazil is approaching an official COVID-19 death toll of 500,000 — second-highest in the world. (AP PhotoBruna Prado)

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.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro greets those gathered for a graduation ceremony at the Naval Academy, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. People gathered across the country Saturday, to protest Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic and economic policies protesters say harm the interests of the poor and working class. (AP PhotoSilvia Izquierdo)

“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 backers in a massive motorcycle parade in Sao Paulo, though his supporters and critics 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.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attends a graduation ceremony at the Naval Academy, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. People gathered across the country Saturday, to protest Bolsonaro's handling of the pandemic and economic policies protesters say harm the interests of the poor and working class. (AP PhotoSilvia Izquierdo)

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 and economic policies protesters say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Cuiaba, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021. Brazil is approaching an official COVID-19 death toll of 500,000 — second-highest in the world. (AP PhotoAndre Penner)

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 and economic policies protesters say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021. Brazil is approaching an official COVID-19 death toll of 500,000 — second-highest in the world. (AP PhotoBruna Prado)

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 and his handling of the pandemic and economic policies protesters say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Cuiaba, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021. (AP PhotoAndre Penner)

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 and economic policies they say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021. Brazil is approaching an official COVID-19 death toll of 500,000 — second-highest in the world. (AP PhotoBruna Prado)

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, Saturday, June 19, 2021. Brazil is approaching an official COVID-19 death toll of 500,000 — second-highest in the world. (AP PhotoBruna Prado)

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 and economic policies they say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021. Brazil is approaching an official COVID-19 death toll of 500,000 — second-highest in the world. (AP PhotoBruna Prado)

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 and economic policies protesters say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021. Brazil is approaching an official COVID-19 death toll of 500,000 — second-highest in the world. (AP PhotoBruna Prado)

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 and economic policies protesters say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021. Brazil is approaching an official COVID-19 death toll of 500,000 — second-highest in the world. (AP PhotoBruna Prado)

Demonstrators holding fake guns shaped like pencils, and a syringe, attend a protest against Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his handling of the pandemic and economic policies protesters say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Cuiaba, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021. (AP PhotoAndre Penner)

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 and economic policies protesters say harm the interests of the poor and working class, in Cuiaba, Brazil, Saturday, June 19, 2021. Brazil is approaching an official COVID-19 death toll of 500,000 — second-highest in the world. (AP PhotoAndre Penner)