Monica Piccinini reports on Jair Bolosnaro’s approach to COVID-19 and the likely impact on him and his people.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is keen to outdo Donald Trump in his laissez faire attitude to COVID-19, as well as his ability to spread fake news and misinformation to his people.
Already well known for his misogynistic and racist statements, his refusal adopt any social distancing measures or lockdown – for what he dismisses as “the sniffles” – is likely to have dangerous consequences.
Brazil is still in the early phase of COVID-19 infection, but the death toll is already approaching 6,000 with more than 80,000 people infected. This is likely to continue to keep rising if Bolsonaro has his way, and the signs are that he will.
His track record shows he has no time for anyone who questions his decisions. As a retired military officer, he is at heart an authoritarian and a natural dictator. Corruption is rife in his Government. Like Trump, he views the pandemic only through the lens of his re-election and still thinks that doing anything to disrupt the economy is a greater threat to his chances than a few more deaths.
“70% of the population will get the virus, there is no escaping from it!” Bolsonario told Globo News. “This is a reality, the virus is here. We now have to face it like a man… Not like a boy. Let’s face it, this virus is a reality. It’s life. We will all die one day.”
This macho attitude has led him to get rid of or sideline anyone who wants to do anything about stopping the spread of the Coronavirus. Bolsonaro recently fired the Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a former paediatric orthopedist and politician who had opposed his views on how to handle the Coronavirus crisis, insisting on social distancing and that he follow global health advice and guidelines.
To make matters worse, Brazil’s Justice Minister, Sergio Moro – who lead the ‘Car Wash’ Inquiry and was responsible for jailing the former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – resigned from office after Bolsonaro’s decision to exonerate the head of the federal police, Mauricio Valeixo, which has been the cause for an investigation.
The President’s policies are stoking the pandemic and putting pressure on Brazil’s health system. The Sistema Unico de Saude (SUS), which ordinary people rely on, is completely unprepared for the increase in admissions. Some states already come close to, or surpassed, a 100% intensive care unit (ICU) occupancy rate by 27 April.
The state of Amazonas’ ICU departments are being forced to improvise ventilators using plastic bags on their COVID-19 patients. There is a real risk that, if the native peoples in the Amazon catch the disease, the results will be devastating to their communities which are already under threat from mining corporations that are big supporters of Bolsonaro and his policy of discriminating against them.
Many Brazilians do not yet realise the danger they are in, especially those who still support the President. Many are more worried about deaths already caused by an already strained economy, lack of proper healthcare or by the violence in the streets. According to the Brazilian Institute of Applied Economic Research, the number of homicides in Brazil in 2019 reached 41,635. When their relatives and family members can’t get treatment for COVID-19 their views might change radically.
A Ticking Time Bomb
Bolosonaro’s actions are creating a ticking time bomb. So far, his mixed messages have convinced many that COVID-19 is not a big problem, but all the evidence from other countries shows that delaying lockdowns and social distancing will lead to a much greater death toll, overwhelming demand for healthcare and greater economic harm.
It is not just the health system that is unlikely to be able to cope with the pandemic, but the whole social security and support system for those who will find themselves without work. The emergency fund for the unemployed only pays out approximately £85 a month for a maximum of three months. This economic hardship is likely to pose an even bigger threat than COVID-19 itself.
The country is split down the middle in terms of Bolosonaro’s performance. A recent survey published by Brazilian polling institute Datafolha has shown that 46% of Brazilians are in favour of Bolsonaro’s impeachment and 48% against it. Rodrigo Maia, the President of the Senate Chamber – the person who would be responsible for activating an impeachment process – is still reluctant to start proceedings. As the death toll increases, will this change?
If Bolosonaro continues on his present course it may be too late to prevent an unacceptable number of COVID-19 deaths and his grip over the presidency might finally slip. Let’s hope the price that Brazilians pay for this is not as high as is feared.