According to a Lowy Institute study, Brazil has had the worst response to the pandemic out of 98 countries. This comes as no surprise to anyone that has been tracking the pandemic in Latin America, as Jair Bolsanaro, Brazil’s sitting president, has been a very vocal COVID-19 skeptic. Ironically, Bolsanaro contracted the virus back in July 2020 and suffered fungal pneumonia as a result. He has, however, continued to downplay the dangers of the virus and dismiss the consequences of the current health crisis.
As a nationalist, and far-right policies advocate, Bolsonaro has been referred to as the “Trump of the Tropics”. When the pandemic first started in March 2020, President Bolsonaro wasted no time in comparing COVID-19 to the common flu, and went as far as saying that his governors’ response was borderline criminal. Because of his initial response to the crisis, the organized crime of Brazil decided to impose their own quarantine in the favelas (low income informal settlements). They took to social media to announce the quarantine and drove with megaphones out in the streets, an unprecedented move for gangs in any country. They put posters up on the streets, which stated, “if the government does not have the capacity to fix it, organized crime will”. As drug traffickers are the ones who act as providers to the citizens of favelas, the citizens heeded the warnings.
President Bolsonaro tried to convince citizens to ignore the warnings by going maskless to a market and shaking hands with anyone he could, but his attempts proved futile. State governors took matters into their own hands to establish further quarantine lockdowns and restrictions, going against the President’s wishes. As the pandemic goes on, Bolsonaro has continuously tried to undermine the state’s authority and has continued his COVID-19 denial campaign. Measures to that effect have included spending emergency funds on chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, and distributing them to the population, in spite of multiple studies disproving their effectiveness. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has dismissed three Health Ministers over disagreement on the handling of the crisis and has appointed an army general as the current Minister of Health. President Bolsonaro also refused offers from vaccine producers such as Pfizer, citing that the terms of the contract were “abusive”. He went on to say that Pfizer “won’t take responsibility if a man develops a high pitch” and at least chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine won’t “kill you”.
Brazil has two of the largest vaccine production factories in Latin America, and is known worldwide for its strong immunization programs. They have, however, been struggling to coordinate a federal immunization campaign. Health workers have been accused of giving older adults “shots of air”, instead of vaccines, citing a video circulating on social media, of a nurse using an empty syringe to inoculate an older woman, as proof. The “wind vaccinations” scandal is just one of the latest government scandals in Latin America, as the poor management of the immunization campaigns become public knowledge. The police are currently conducting an investigation, as allegations have risen in the cities of Petrópolis, Maceió, São Paulo, Goiânia, and Río de Janeiro. While sources seem to indicate that these cases are isolated, confidence in the immunization program has wavered, as allegations of preferential treatment to politicians and the wealthy have also emerged.
Bolsonaro has also taken a stand against his critics, employing Dictatorship-Era legacy laws to evade criticism of his administration. The Human Rights Watch group denounced the laws in January stating they were being enacted to seek jail time for people who were speaking against his COVID-19 response. The government has asked the police to open investigations against journalists, a Supreme Court justice, and other critics. On June 15th, 2020, an investigation was opened against a cartoon artist and a journalist for sharing a cartoon criticizing Bolsonaro for denying the presence of Covid-19 patients at hospitals. The Supreme Court Justice, Gilmar Mendes, was accused of inciting animosity between armed forces and civilians when he criticized the inaction of the Minister of Health, an army general, by saying “the army was associating itself with genocide”. A journalist was accused of “inciting the suicide of two presidents” when he said that if, then President, Donald Trump wanted to become a martyr, he could commit suicide and Bolsonaro could imitate him. These are only some of the investigations the government has launched against Bolsonaro’s critics, a clear attempt at intimidation using old national security laws that have no place in a democracy.
On March 17th, 2021, an article on BBC announced the imminent collapse of the healthcare system in Brazil, as all COVID-19 units in the country found themselves at 80% capacity or higher, while announcing the highest death toll the country had seen yet. Many hospitals are forced to turn patients away, as some hospitals have exceeded 100% capacity. Furthermore, health workers, mayors, and governors across the country are announcing a shortage of medical supplies. Following this, on March 21st, the National Council of Municipal Health Secretaries announced they will run out of medical supplies needed to intubate patients within the next two weeks. The situation was even more critical in Sao Sebastiao, a town who only had supplies for another day, and had to plead on social media to obtain another week’s worth.
States called upon the Minister of Health, Marcelo Queiroga (the fourth minister since the crisis began), to impose a national lockdown. Their pleas will most likely fall on deaf ears, as President Bolsanaro has filed a lawsuit in order to get the Supreme Court to reverse COVID-19 restrictions in the country. He believes the lockdown measures are “unconstitutional” and that governors are acting like “dictators” and “starving people”.
While Bolsanaro defends his actions by saying he’s protecting the country’s economic health and individual freedoms, 54% of Brazilians disagree with how he’s handling the pandemic. Moreover, on Sunday, March 21st, an open letter penned by more than 500 prominent leaders, economists, bankers, and politicians was published in a major newspaper, calling upon the President to rethink his approach to the pandemic.
Whether or not the President decides to do so remains to be seen. Brazil’s response to COVID-19 thus far has been nothing short of a failure, and a switch on the government’s approach at this point seems unlikely. The first time the P1 Brazilian Covid-19 variant became public knowledge was in January, when Japanese Health authorities discovered a new variant after testing multiple Brazilian travellers. Later, reports emerged of indigenous tribes and the city of Manaus being decimated by this new virus mutation. As the virus becomes more easily transmissible, Brazil will not be the only nation affected by its own lack of preventive measures. The mutated strain of the virus has already been spread to other cities and countries around the world. The threat of other mutations occurring due to Brazil’s poor control of the pandemic is a very real possibility. Such a scenario would not only make Brazil a risk to the current vaccines in the market, but a global danger to other countries as well. Given the reported scarcity of vaccines in the nation, and the current political panorama, such a scenario remains likely unless drastic action is taken in the next few weeks.
As the third wave looms, the next month will decide whether or not Brazil will be able to survive the upcoming disaster, or whether its health crisis will become one of the largest tragedies in modern history. Brazil’s fate hangs in the balance.
Edited by: Arielle De Leon
Photo credits: “COVID-19 Pandemic – Brazil” by Raphael Alves (International Monetary Fund), published on September 19th 2020, licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. No changes were made.