Covid response in Brazil

Nightmare in Brazil

Print edition : July 03, 2020

At a crowded market in Rio de Janeiro on June 17. Photo: Andre Coelho/Getty Images

President Jair Bolsonaro. Photo: ADRIANO MACHADO/REUTERS

Jair Bolsonaro’s cavalier attitude towards the spread of COVID creates a serious health crisis in Brazil with the country emerging as one of the epicentres of the pandemic.

Brazil was the first nation to register a case of COVID-19 in February. Since then, the government, led by the far-right Jair Bolsonaro, has been cavalier about the spread of the virus and the impact of the disease. The President has minimised the severity of the virus and has called it a “little flue” and a “cold”. Bolsonaro has mocked the media for its “hysteria” and denied the rising infection and death rate in his country. In March, he said Brazilians “never catch anything” even when they dive into sewage, and that they probably have the antibodies to halt the spread of the virus. As of this writing in mid-June, there are almost 900,000 confirmed cases in Brazil with over 44,000 fatalities. Brazil has emerged as one of the epicentres of the global pandemic.

Rather than follow the basic protocols established by the World Health Organisation (WHO), such as testing, contact tracing, physical distancing, and social isolation of hotspot areas, Bolsonaro dismissed the contagiousness of the virus and encouraged his supporters to take to the streets in mass rallies. As Governors of the various provinces not associated with Bolsonaro’s politics established quarantine measures, Bolsonaro fought hard to undermine them. He mocked any attempt to be serious about the virus and dismissed concerns as essentially anti-national.

Like United States President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro masqueraded as a health professional, urging his Health Ministry to encourage the use of chloroquine and hydroxychlorquine as an antidote to the disease. It is true that these anti-viral drugs are being studied for their efficacy in fighting COVID-19, but there is as yet no evidence that these are viable treatment methods. Two of Bolsonaro’s Health Ministers had to exit when they disagreed with their leader over the pandemic. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a pediatric orthopaedist, had clashed with Bolsonaro about physical distancing and about the anti-viral drugs; he was fired. His successor, Nelson Teich, an oncologist, could not agree with Bolsonaro on the anti-viral drugs; he lasted a month. These doctors were replaced by Eduardo Pazuello, an Army General who had managed security logistics during the Olympics. He has no medical background but is loyal to Bolsonaro. Neither Bolsonaro nor Pazuello has placed a comprehensive plan before the public to tackle the outbreak. Health officials bemoan the lack of a national strategy.

In early June, the Health Ministry took down the official website for a day. It was this site that had been publishing the COVID-19 data. When the site returned the next day, all the data on past COVID-19 cases had vanished. There was simply no way of assessing any official numbers on infection rates or death rates. The opposition criticised this action, with Rodrigo Maia, also a politician of the right, saying on twitter that “the health ministry is trying to cover the sun with a sieve. It is urgent to restore the credibility of statistics. A ministry that distorts numbers creates a parallel universe to avoid facing the reality of facts”. It took the intervention of the Supreme Court to restore the data.

Bizarrely, Bolsonaro told his supporters to “invade” hospitals and inspect the COVID-19 wards and see that they are largely empty. He continues to contest the numbers of those infected. On June 4 and June 9, this is just what his party members and others did. They photographed the ICU wards and disrupted the integrity of the isolation sections. “This behaviour endangers the physical integrity of the brave professionals who dedicate themselves to reversing a health care crisis unprecedented in the country’s history,” said Brazil’s Attorney General Augusto Aras. Bolsonaro sniffed at this criticism.

Anger and distress at Bolsonaro’s deliberate incompetence was captured by a statement made by Brazil’s former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Speaking to CNN from his home in Sao Paolo, Lula said that Bolsonaro has been “irresponsible” and “negligent”. Bolsonaro, Lula said, “has committed many crimes of irresponsibility and I think he already deserves to be punished for that.” His punishment should be his impeachment from office.

Auto-coup?

There is a serious political crisis in Brazil that comes alongside the health crisis. Society is polarised with a firm right-wing among considerable sections that remain behind Bolsonaro and are itching for a strong response against Brazil’s left. Bolsonaro has indicated that he is not averse to setting aside the country’s Constitution and bringing in the Army to govern with him. This is very chilling.

Bolsonaro filled his own Cabinet with military men and has often spoken favourably about the long period of military rule from 1964 to 1985. The Constitution prevents a return to military rule and makes it illegal to speak about the suspension of democracy. Bolsonaro has skirted the edge of legality with his statements. He, and his Vice President, General Hamilton Mourao, are open adherents of military power. This is not a new phenomenon for them.

What piqued Bolsonaro was an investigation by the Supreme Court over corruption allegations against his family. His former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who played a disruptable role in the case against Lula, went to prosecutors and provided an eight-hour deposition about Bolsonaro’s attempt to interfere in this case. Leaked recordings of Bolsonaro’s conversations with Moro show that he wanted the head of the Federal Police, Mauricio Valeixo, to be replaced. When Moro refused, Bolsonaro fired Valeixo and brought in a friend of his sons, Alexandre Ramagem (of Brazilian intelligence), as the replacement. 

Even Moro, who was not above using the dirtiest tricks against Lula, could not stomach this behaviour; he resigned. The Supreme Court would not allow the appointment of Ramagem, so Bolsonaro appointed Ramagem’s close associate Rolando Souza to the post. Rolando Souza came to office and removed the man who was overseeing the investigation of Bolsonaro and his family.

Bolsonaro has been regularly meeting with the military members of his Cabinet and with other military men to secure consensus that the Supreme Court is out of line. At a May protest at the court, the tone was chilling. Rumours of an “auto-coup” sizzled through the country.

Fora Bolsonaro

As the lockdown began to ease, Domingo Alves of the Health Intelligence Laboratory said, “We are sending the population to a slaughterhouse. The city of Sao Paolo opens its shops today, with a rising death rate; this shows a cynicism both from the Governor of the state of Sao Paolo and now from the city’s mayor.”

A hashtag began in Brazil, #ficaemcasa or #StayHome,to urge Brazilians not to listen to the frivolous and dangerous statements from Bolsonaro. The only reason to go out has been to join the protests against the callous policy of the government and its threats of a military coup. Residents of the cities on occasion go out on their balconies and bang pots and pans–a panelço–to call for Bolsonaro’s impeachment. 

The slogan is Bolsonaro Out–Fora Bolsonaro. Another campaign, initiated by the economist Eduardo Moreira, emerged with the hashtag #Somes70porcent or #WeAre70percent, reflecting a majority that seems to be against Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis.

Protests against Bolsonaro, however, have been met with rising right-wing violence. 

This reflects the uneven polarisation in the country, with the right-wing eager to escalate any demonstration into violence precisely because it does not command a majority of the population.

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