At the start of this week, a press conference was held by Bruno Covas, the mayor of Sao Paulo. This is Brazil’s largest city and Covas revealed that it was in crisis. He stated that ‘we have about two weeks before the hospital system collapses’ and reported that over 90% of hospital beds in cities are occupied. If the healthcare system is overwhelmed (as we have seen in Italy) there will be catastrophic consequences.
The city is packed to the seams with a population density of 7216 people per square kilometre – greater than London, the epicentre of the UK’s outbreak. This shows how rapidly the disease could be spreading. Looking at Brazil as a whole, we can see that the situation is dire. The South American nation currently has the third highest number of cases worldwide and on the day I write this article it has reported its highest daily death toll. There were 1,179 deaths reported on Tuesday with the grim total now standing at 17,971.
As world health experts warn that Brazil will shortly become the worldwide centre of the pandemic, it would seem reasonable to assume that government would be taking stringent action to mitigate the effect of the outbreak. However, President Jair Bolsonaro has shown a callous disregard for scientific advice and the health of the citizens who put him in power. The lacklustre and ignorant response of Bolsonaro is even more disgraceful than the erratic policy of the Trump White House.
Bolsonaro swept to power upon a wave of public anger in Brazil after successive Presidents had been forced out of office by corruption scandals. His far-right populist platform portrayed him as outside of the corruption which had marred his predecessors. He appeared a radical, new choice for Brazil which had suffered economic difficulties for the several years leading up to the election. Nearly 60% of Bolsonaro’s voters were aged 16-34 indicating their economic frustration as youth unemployment rates soared in contrast to what had been years of positive progress up until 2014.
However, Bolsonaro has a history of controversial comments and has been blamed for mass deforestation of the Amazon in recent years. He has displayed homophobic, sexist and racist attitudes and has also praised autocratic rule alongside promises of looser gun laws.
Despite this love of autocrats, he has shown a complete lack of will to be involved in protecting his people’s health, preferring to prioritise Brazil’s ailing economy. Whilst individual states have taken action and introduced lockdowns, Bolsonaro has continually defied social distancing advice and addressed mass crowds whilst posing for photographs and hugging children for his political photo ops. He has also denied the threat of the virus describing it as ‘a little flu.’ Bolsonaro has attempted to defend his laissez-faire stance on the pandemic as he tweeted that ‘unemployment, hunger and misery will be the future of those who support the tyranny of total isolation.’ Whilst Bolsonaro is correct to note the looming economic crisis, there will be an enormous loss of life if more action isn’t taken.
Indeed, it may be too late for the country. Despite the lockdowns in individual states, the laws are widely ignored. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given the President’s constant minimising of the threat of Covid-19. In March, he perpetuated ridiculously unscientific theories that Brazilians were somehow immune to the virus stating that ‘they never catch anything. You see some bloke jumping into the sewage, he gets out, has a dive, right? And nothing happens to him.’ As many inept leaders are discovering throughout the world, wrapping yourself in patriotic ignorance saves no lives.
The Northern city of Manaus has been shattered by the virus with mass graves being dug in the Amazonian city. There was a saddening story of two men having to bury their own father as grave diggers where overwhelmed. Reports in late April suggested that even wooden coffins would run out. Whilst there has been criticisms of Manaus’ state governor for failing to lockdown quickly enough, the attitude from the top meant that there was no political encouragement for such a move. The Manaus crisis coincided with remarks by Bolsonaro where he reacted to the increase in death toll (over 5000, at that time) by petulantly telling a journalist ‘so what?’ and blamed China. This led to outrage across Brazil as newspapers slammed the President on their front pages. One of his political opponents called him a ‘despicable human being.’
So, will Bolsonaro survive the crisis unscathed? Whilst the President’s approval ratings have sunk to an all time low, they are only four points lower than they were last year pre-coronavirus. Much like Trump, he has a devoted group of supporters who will support him through any turmoil. However, the combination of a health, economic, and political crisis may prove too much for President Bolsonaro. Leaked images from a cabinet meeting demonstrated Bolsonaro under severe pressure. He stated the ‘ship is sinking’ and called Sao Paulo and Rio’s governors a ‘shit’ and ‘manure’ respectively.
Bolsonaro has also been rocked by resignations from the heart of his government. He sacked his health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, after he publicly criticised the President for his failure to follow social distancing measures. In a further blow to the administration, the justice minister, Sergio Moro, tendered his resignation in late April after frustration with the President’s response to coronavirus. However, this was not the main reason. Moro also resigned after the President sacked the head of Brazil’s federal police which he believed showed an unacceptable amount of political interference in the system. He stated that the President had told him he wanted a chief he could phone and access intelligence reports from.
One theory behind Bolsonaro’s sacking of the chief was the belief that a criminal investigation would shortly implicate the President’s politician son. Moro was formerly a judge before being appointed to government and played a key role in jailing past presidents for corruption charges making him a hero for conservatives. This could fracture the President’s base with protests breaking out almost immediately after Moro’s resignation which called for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. This was echoed by conservative websites and Brian Winter, editor of Americas Quarterly, called the resignation ‘devastating for Bolsonaro.’ The cabinet leaks (released around the same time as the resignation) also show Bolsonaro stating that he wasn’t going ‘to wait [for the police] to fuck with my friends and family.’ There are also suggestions that the military may soon withdraw their support from the President in solidarity with Moro.
Since the resignation of Luiz Mandetta, his replacement has also dramatically quit office. Nelson Teich resigned last Friday after falling out with the President over his refusal to endorse social isolation and his endorsement of the anti-malaria drug chloroquine as an effective treatment for the virus despite the lack of scientific evidence. He was also undermined by Bolsonaro who overruled him and declared businesses such as gyms and beauty salons as essential in further evidence of his prioritisation of the economy.
Jair Bolsonaro is caught in a self-constructed perfect storm. Corruption scandal. Political chaos. And the coronavirus pandemic. Whilst there are very genuine concerns over the economy, the economic destruction will be even worse if Brazil is caught in wave after wave of the virus. Bolsonaro may make it to the next election in 2022 but it is likely that he could be dramatically thrown from office, plunging the beautiful country into yet more political uncertainty. Despite the scandal, it is important to remember that Bolsonaro’s refusal to take coronavirus seriously is leading to the death of thousands of his own citizens. Returning to Bruno Covas, perhaps uncertainty would be better than a man who ‘prefers the population to be subjected to Russian Roulette.’