On 25 May 2020, the United States announced it would be suspending travel from Brazil for non-American citizens. The South American giant now has the second highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world. Mass graves are dug daily, and the pandemic has yet to peak. But President Jair Bolsonaro continues to refuse to acknowledge the danger of the virus.
According to a White House statement, trade will not be affected between the two countries. The US is currently locked in a trade war with China, Brazil’s strongest trade partner since 2009. The suspension – which was expected – will take effect on 28 May.
While simmering down from the annual Rio carnival festival towards the end of February, the vibrant nation recorded its first case brought in by the wealthy returning from holiday. Two months later, it has over 360 000 confirmed cases and more than 22 000 deaths, with a record number of deaths in a 24-hour period recorded this past week. Deaths are expected to rise to over 90 000 by August, but figures could be higher if testing constraints are taken into account.
Latin America’s largest economy is the worst hit country in the region, closely followed by Peru. The death toll is the sixth highest in the world. In May, Brazil jumped in cases globally from number 10 to number two. It has surpassed the US in the number of healthcare workers who have died.
Recently, in response to a question about the rising death toll, Bolsonaro responded, “So what? What do you want me to do?”
His son Eduardo Bolsonaro, a lawmaker, responded to popular outrage by sending a tweet claiming that his father’s words were taken out of context. In March, taking his cue from US President Donald Trump, Eduardo blamed China’s Communist Party for what he termed the “China virus”, leading to a diplomatic clapback uncharacteristic of the Chinese.
Previously, Jair Bolsonaro said he was not a “gravedigger” when asked about the climbing figures, joking that he did not work miracles despite his middle name being Messias. He earlier accused the media of sensationalising the “little flu” and referred to state and local authorities’ measures as “scorched-Earth policy”. A few days later, members of his team caught the virus.
Bolsonaro believes, with the support of some, that the economy should remain open and continue to function as normal, despite cities voicing concerns that the virus could cripple healthcare systems as early as March. Local administrations have been delegated the responsibility of curbing the spread of the virus, working on state and municipal levels, and differing by city and state.
João Doria, the governor of São Paulo, which is the economic heart of the country and a Covid-19 hotspot, said the healthcare system was feeling the effects of the rapidly spreading virus in the city, with its mayor warning the system would buckle in the coming weeks if residents did not comply with social distancing regulations. Doria said the city had to fight against both the coronavirus and the Bolsonarovirus. The city hired 1 200 doctors and created two field and four permanent hospitals in 40 days with plans to create more intensive care unit beds.
In March, gangs apparently started imposing restrictions in favelas due to the nonchalant federal state response. Going out in public without a mask in Rio de Janeiro, which has under 38 000 confirmed cases as of 25 May, can now earn you a fine of just under R500.
Maranhão state governor, Flavio Dino, smuggled 107 ventilators and 200 000 masks in from China through Ethiopia fearing confiscation by the US and Bolsonaro, who previously blocked a shipment of ventilators to the state. A supreme court ruling resulted in more ventilators being delivered after the president specifically blocked them.
In April, the Brazilian Association of Jurists for Democracy filed a complaint against Bolsonaro with the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity that victimise Brazilians in the face of the global pandemic. They considered his words to be “absolutely irresponsible”.
The indigenous and the impoverished
Late last year, Bolsonaro also had a case against him at The Hague for his role in encouraging the killing of indigenous people who are already suffering from rivers being polluted by mining activities and deforestation. Although he has not changed environmental policies, Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has emboldened illegal loggers, hunters and miners, who continue to strip the Amazon of its resources.
In Manaus, the capital city of Amazonas and the biggest in the Amazon, mass graves are dug daily. Amazonas is reported to have the highest number of indigenous people. The coming fire season may fuel the number of hospital visits in the region because of lung-related issues caused by smoke inhalation.
There is concern that the virus may spread among indigenous people, with access to and quality of well-funded healthcare a big issue, particularly for those with comorbidities exacerbated by race and gender.
In the over 200-million strong country, the virus is snatching the lives of the impoverished, posing a major risk to favelas and shack settlements where cramped conditions mean people battle to maintain social distance.
Changing health ministers
Bolsonaro, who actively opposes social distancing measures, said, “History will judge us and I ask God that we are right, the struggle to start opening up for business is a risk that I will take. If it gets worse then that’s on me.”
The Trump lover was seen out in Brasilia as recently as 25 May without a mask. He has also been seen jet skiing, attending anti-lockdown rallies and going on a tour of the federal district without any personal protective equipment, against the advice of his former Minister of Health Luiz Henrique Mandetta. He has said that given his athletic history, if he were infected with Covid-19, he would not be concerned.
Brazil is one of the only countries to change health ministers repeatedly during a global pandemic. Bolsonaro warned Mandetta not to speak out against him in public after Bolsonaro highlighted his disregard for the strict counter-measures recommended by the World Health Organization against the spread of the virus.
Mandetta was fired in April and replaced with Nelson Teich, who resigned on 15 May after serving less than a month. The interim health minister, Eduardo Pazuello, an army general, authorised new guidelines issued on 20 May promoting the early use of antimalarial drugs in mild Covid-19 cases. The same drug was touted by Trump as a “game changer” but has been linked with increased deaths in coronavirus patients.
On 19 May, Bolsonaro again advocated for the drug as a remedy, despite warnings from health experts and trained doctors leaving senior positions over the endorsement. There is currently no empirical evidence of the drug preventing or treating the virus. Bolsonaro retorted that Brazil is a democracy, and people do not have to take the drug if they do not want to.
While former president Dilma Rousseff had put programmes into place to address historic problems within the public health sector, her work as well as that of her predecessor, Lula da Silva, was undone.
An amendment saw public healthcare dealt a blow in the form of a 20-year budget freeze as part of austerity measures under Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer. Bolsonaro then made a number of decisions that further impaired the country’s management of the outbreak, including cutting budgets in education, and science and technology. He also expelled about 8 000 Cuban doctors living in the country, leaving gaps in mainly rural areas where doctors will potentially be most needed.
The country is not only struggling with an economic crisis, it is also in the middle of a political crisis with forces pulling between Right and Left.
Former justice minister Sérgio Moro stepped down in April after Bolsonaro fired the head of the federal police, Mauricio Valeixo, without cause. Moro – who was the judge instrumental in imprisoning Lula, though this ruling has been widely criticised – accused Bolsonaro of political meddling by replacing senior members of the federal police for personal reasons. He has refuted this, but the public prosecutor is investigating.
In website-crashing footage released as part of an investigation by the supreme court on 24 May, Bolsonaro is shown admitting to trying to change security personnel before his “family or friends get screwed”. Before the footage came out, Bolsonaro wrote on Facebook that he was referring to his personal security, and there was “no indication of interference with the federal police”.
The same footage shot in April shows a foul-mouthed Bolsonaro addressing cabinet members, with the environmental minister insinuating that the virus presented an opportunity to relax regulations in the Amazon.
Every night at 8.30pm, disgruntled Brazilians bang their pots and pans against Bolsonaro, and before the outbreak of the virus, many would march to Avenida Paulista in protest against him.
Although Bolsonaro has said that it is normal for the popularity of politicians to wane after a year in office, there is growing pressure for him to handle the virus better and revive the economy if he hopes to energise voters from his right-wing base in the next elections and survive 28 impeachment requests against him.