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Sat 17 April 2021

Brazil’s Coronavirus crisis has exposed the weaknesses of a populist authoritarian Government, reports Monica Piccinini

After decades of political turmoil, instability and questionable governments, Brazil’s Coronavirus crisis has led to growing demands for political and social change . 

The pandemic, in concert with the populism and extremism of the far-right Jair Bolsonaro presidency, has exposed a range of social, political and structural issues that demand an urgent response.

Luiz Henrique Mandetta, Bolsonaro’s former health minister, has spoken exclusively to Byline Times about the intersecting issues facing Brazil and the need for a political response that goes beyond empty promises and instead brings about real and long-term improvements. 

Mandetta was sacked from his position after disagreeing with Bolsonaro’s assertion that chloroquine is an effective treatment for COVID-19 and urging Brazil to follow the World Health Organisation’s recommendations in its pandemic response. 

“COVID-19 came to question the world, about how we understand ourselves,” he said. “Brazil will pay a high price due to its inequality.”


Rising Inequality

Brazil is ranked eighth in the world for income inequality and the divide between the rich and poor has increased by 20% since the start of the Coronavirus crisis. 

This wealth gap manifests most visibly in the favelas and shanty towns where Brazil’s poorest people live. Only 50% of people living in favelas have access to adequate sanitation. Many work in the informal economy and have been forced to continue working while the Coronavirus has raged through Brazilian cities. As a result, these communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“These individuals are in a situation of deep depression,” Mandetta told Byline Times. “Since the pandemic began, it is unfair to ask them to self-isolate as going out and earning a living is a matter of survival.”

Along with high levels of wealth inequality, public funding through tax disproportionately applies to sectors of society that can least afford to pay them.

As a former health minister and paediatric orthopaedic doctor, Mandetta has first-hand knowledge of the Brazilian healthcare system and the pressures it has faced during the pandemic.

He believes that the system needs “improvement, better management, investment, digitalisation, introduction of a universal electronic medical record and to guarantee easier access to the population”. This, he argues, can be done via the public and private sector so long as “it is within the logic of the health system”.


A Struggling Healthcare System 

Brazil has the second-highest Coronavirus death rate in the world, with 247,000 people losing their lives since the pandemic began. 

No where has the pandemic been more keenly felt than in Manaus, where people have died asphyxiated due to a lack of oxygen, medical supplies, hospital beds and proper planning.

The devastating scenes have been the result of a leadership that has continuously refused to take adequate measures to fight the virus.

“We saw a disaster happening in Manaus, because the federal Government was away from it, was not measuring it, was not taking care of it, was not giving technical advice, was not monitoring it,” Mandetta told Byline Times. “So suddenly they ran out of oxygen and they did not have a plan on how to deal with the situation. People died because they could not breathe.”

Mandetta is now concerned that the scenes in Manaus will be replicated across the most deprived areas of the country, as new strains of the Coronavirus threaten to wreak havoc on the health system. 

The Government must take urgent action to prepare cities with fragile healthcare infrastructure for the high transmissibility of the new strain and carry out a genetic study on the variant to ensure that it responds to the vaccine.  

“What we are seeing at the moment is a fragmentation of the system, as each city and each state make their own decisions,” Mandetta said. 

This fragmentation is having an impact on the delivery of the vaccine too, with different cities and states making different deals with providers. 

“We are all dealing with a vaccine crisis across the world, but Brazil is in a much worse position,” he added.

The Brazilian Government was slow to act to purchase vaccines, leading to concerns that Brazil will go through 2021 and even 2022 struggling to get the necessary doses to vaccinate its population. 

One solution, Mandetta argues, is “to put people who understand the health system in charge, professionals who have the knowledge and leadership skills they need to find a way out of this crisis. Currently, Brazil has the military in charge of all areas of health in the federal government, who don’t have any experience and don’t know what to do.”


Policing and Populism

Brazil has always been a violent country but recent populist moves from Jair Bolsonaro risk endangering the lives of the country’s citizens. 

The President recently approved an increase in the number of weapons that each Brazilian is allowed to purchase – from four to six. At the same time, a new law is being assessed that will mean police officers who kill people won’t face investigation. This is in spite of the fact that Brazil has high levels of police violence. 

Such moves reflect Bolsonaro’s populist, far-right platform.

“These individuals do not think about the consequences of their policies, instead, their plan is to please the masses,” Mandetta told Byline Times. “This is not a collective policy, it is an individual one, and the common citizen can freely purchase weapons and shoots as they wish.”

Brazilian politicians have a deep-rooted sense of entitlement and a tradition of impunity across the decades. Mandetta believes that there is a need for political reform in Brazil – away from a US-style presidential system and towards a parliamentary model. 

“Brazilians view the President as the saviour of the country,” Mandetta said. “They feel the need for the President to charm them. Parliamentarism is a good system of government in my view, where you are able to get out of political crises faster, where political parties carry much more responsibility.”

Mandetta sees similarities between Bolsonaro and former US President Donald Trump, with the former using social media as a platform to antagonise, create tension and cause instability. He noted that Trump’s former campaign manager and the far-right ideologue Steve Bannon influenced Bolsonaro’s 2018 electoral victory.

“Bannon is part of the general policy that also influenced Brexit, the resurgence of Austria’s far-right and the cause of nationalist, neo-Nazi sectarian movements,” he said. “People felt free to distil their hatred and racism. Individuals like Steve Bannon have very shallow and obvious policies.” 

Mandetta is now looking at how these divisions could play out in next year’s Presidential Election. 

“There is a lot of polarisation between the right and the left and this scenario is perfect for them,” he said. “The left says ‘vote for me, otherwise Bolsonaro will stay’. The right says, ‘vote for me, otherwise the opposition will come back’. They do not wish the population to be able to have a choice. They want the population to choose who they hate less.”

The ability to navigate turbulent waters is something Brazilians have mastered extremely well over recent decades. Their resilience, combined with a positive attitude, is magnificent to watch. But, the population is tired of incompetent and inadequate leadership, corruption scandals, economic unrest, injustice, violence, inequality, racism and political turmoil. 

Brazilians have endured so much pain. They are battered, bruised and longing for change.

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