You are here
Brazil during COVID-19: The tale of a rudderless ship and clueless captain
It’s September 7th 2020, the anniversary of Brazil’s independence, and President Jair Bolsonaro is meeting supporters without a mask. Although an absurd action, it is now commonplace to find the Brazilian president on walkabouts, protests, trips, and even running errands, all without a mask and greeting supporters face to face. Bolsonaro has been among the worst leaders in responding to the pandemic, rivalling Trump at every turn, when not directly taking the lead from him.
Among his most outrageous remarks, Bolsonaro has said that the pandemic is “overblown”, that Brazil wouldn’t be hit as hard as Europe because “the European population is much older”, and that we needed to face the “virus as a fact of life. We’re all gonna die someday”. Once deaths in Brazil started rising in April, he famously said he is “no gravedigger” and that he is Messias [referring to his middle name] but doesn’t “work miracles”.
Because of Brazil’s participation in international efforts regarding healthcare and peacekeeping and the existence of the Unified Healthcare System (SUS), the expectation was that the country would be able to hold the pandemic back. However, President Bolsonaro’s statements are accompanied by a dismantling of the federal administration, a continuation of Michel Temer’s defunding of public services, and a communication platform that bombards the public with fake news.
Not only is Bolsonaro a staunch supporter of hydroxychloroquine, but recently spoke out against his own law, claiming vaccinations would not be mandatory. More alarmingly, Brazil has been without a titular minister of health for four months, after the dismissal of Luiz Mandetta and his successor, Nelson Teich, who lasted 29 days on the job due to his refusal to endorse hydroxychloroquine. For the past four months, the ministry has been in the inexperienced hands of General Eduardo Pazuello, who has used the time to dismiss the women’s health team and increase restrictions on abortion.
Despite his inability to lead, Bolsonaro hit his highest approval ratings (37%, within the margin of error) and has gone back down to his “safe space” of roughly 33-4%. His disapproval numbers have also increased (44-6%), especially during the musical chairs of health ministers, and settled back down to his usual 34%. Although he still polling relatively low in the Northeast, there have been gains made in the region, attributed to the emergency aid money given out during the pandemic. On the other hand, he is still disliked by women, who are the most likely to benefit from the aid money.
Despite many other scandals, including his sons (also politicians), his closest ally, his wife, Michelle Bolsonaro, and the resignation of his strongest and most well-polled political ally, a former judge and now former Justice Minister Sérgio Moro, Bolsonaro’s hardcore base is standing by him. Even something as unforgivable as cutting deals with parties in the Centrão, Brazilian centre-right parties with few ties to the public and often associated with corrupt politics, has not shaken his base in the long-term, according to surveys.
Similarly to other populist leaders, Bolsonaro has a stronghold and has created an aura about him of "can do no wrong". The pandemic has enabled him to do something that most radical right populist leaders find difficult, which is spending money. Currently, he has been at odds with his Minister of Finance, Paulo Guedes, for wanting to expand cash-transfer programmes that he once criticised.
The emergency aid for the pandemic has gone to roughly 65 million people, giving out five monthly instalments of R$ 60,000 or approximately £8,500 or $12,000 USD. About 54% of people aided by this cash-transfer were not on any social programme. With funds running low, there has been an extension until December, now with half the value, while Bolsonaro and Guedes fight over Renda Brasil, the rebranding of the Bolsa Família programme. However, Guedes has no political interest and no reelection to win, unlike Bolsonaro and his three sons. As such rather than focus on the pandemic, Bolsonaro focuses on the areas in the country where he had fewer votes and where he has the most to gain, demonstrated by his travelling schedule and his constant refrain of helping the extremely poor, but maintaining assistance to the poor.
Meanwhile, these are the areas that are also the hardest hit by the pandemic, as SUS resources are not equally distributed geographically. While the absolute number of deaths is highest in more crowded areas, such as the state of São Paulo or other capitals, the incidence rates are much higher in the North and Northeast regions.
Figure 1: Covid-19 cases and deaths per 100.000, per state – 09/09/2020 – Brazil
Source: States’ health secretariats. Maps elaborated by Brasil.io.
The difficulties in quality and access of data have also been an issue, with the federal government's website going on blackout in June. The site came back without consolidated data and although that issue was solved after criticism, a focus on the number of people who have recovered has been kept. There are also issues within the states, the ones who provide the data, that range from lack of gender and race/ethnicity details (information that the federal government leaves out from the complete data), and the aforementioned focus on recovery.
Lack of access to testing and a general appreciation for the severity of the crisis early on has meant that the first official case was established on 25 February and the first death on 12 March, despite increases in acute respiratory syndrome cases in the first eight epidemiological weeks of the year.
Figure 2: Acute Respiratory Syndrome cases for the first 8 epidemiological weeks - Brazil - 2009-2020
Unlike Trump, who eventually admitted the severity of the pandemic (to a point, at least) and stopped pushing hydroxychloroquine, Bolsonaro remains steadfast in his views and in his attacks on governors and mayors who maintain lockdown measures (although he has lessened his animosity somewhat, due to his new political partners). He continues to go out in crowded spaces, even after having had Covid-19 and continues to make disastrous comments that have no impact whatsoever, including his attacks on journalists. His base, the opposition, the neutrals, all remain and act the same. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be a direction for Brazil, in the pandemic, or in politics. Unless you count slowly sinking.
Larissa Peixoto Gomes is a political scientist with a PhD from the Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brasil and a member of the Political Studies Association. She tweets at @larissapolitics and co-hosts the Brazil Nuts podcast, with Gareth Davies. Find it at @brazilnutspod. Image credit: Palácio do Planalto/Flickr.