Jair Bolsonaro Isn’t Just a Hazard to Brazil’s Health

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Argentine President Alberto Fernandez, left, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. (Alejandro Pagni / AFP / Andressa Anholete / Getty)

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Buenos Aires. The president of Argentina looked and sounded exhausted. After first declaring a nationwide lockdown toward the middle of March, Alberto Fernández announced in a May 23 press conference that he would be extending the quarantine until June 7. In the days prior, confirmed cases of Covid-19 had spiked from approximately 150 to 700 daily, with the poorest villas of Buenos Aires hit the hardest. So when a reporter asked him if he had considered how much distress his stay-at-home order was causing, independent of its politics, his answer was brusque.
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“We’re in the middle of a pandemic that kills people, understand?” he asked, his voice growing louder with each sentence. “This is an unknown virus that doesn’t have a vaccine or a treatment, understand? Stay home, take care of yourselves, and try to endure as best you can.”

“‘Distressing’ is when the state abandons you,” Fernández continued. “‘Distressing’ is when [elected officials] say ‘nothing is happening here.’ Serious things are happening here, and that’s why we’ve taken the action we have.”

Eighteen hundred miles away, the people of Brasília were experiencing abandonment firsthand. Hours after Fernández delivered his address presenting new shelter-in-place guidelines, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro decided to grab a hot dog in his nation’s capital. By then, more than 22,000 Brazilians had already died from Covid-19, and the country was fast emerging as one of the pandemic’s new hot spots worldwide. One month earlier, when asked about the nation’s mounting death toll, Bolsonaro responded, “So what? I’m sorry, but what do you want me to do about it?” This May night, he was greeted with cries of “assassino” (murderer) from local residents.

At the end of May, Latin America accounted for 40 percent of daily coronavirus deaths across the globe, and arguably no country in the region has been rocked harder than Brazil. While it has thus far escaped the infection and death rates of Spain and the United States, Brazil claimed the second-largest number of confirmed cases worldwide at approximately 830,000 on June 12, along with the second-highest number of deaths per million residents on the continent (197). Argentina, by comparison, had over 28,000 confirmed cases and a death rate of 17 per million residents.

These numbers only hint at a growing political divide in the West—one that Brazil and Argentina have increasingly come to exemplify. Whereas Fernández has mobilized the full power of the state during the pandemic to preserve human life, Bolsonaro has responded with a gleeful denialism, antagonizing medical professionals and sabotaging local quarantine efforts, which he claims will reduce Brazil to a poor African nation. This brand of anti-politics, of which bolsonarismo is only a particularly macabre expression, poses an existential threat not only to the marginalized communities of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Manaus, but potentially to South America itself.

“The saying goes that when the economy of Brazil sneezes, Argentina catches a cold,” notes German Feierherd, a political scientist and an assistant professor at the Universidad de San Andrés. “Brazil is the country’s principal trading partner, accounting for anywhere from 15 to 20 percent of imports. It’s more important than China and the United States. As the biggest country in South America, any kind of instability will have repercussions for Argentina and the continent.”

On June 12, Argentina further postponed its negotiating deadline with bondholders looking to claim in excess of $65 billion in foreign debt, raising the possibility of the country’s defaulting for a second time since 2014. Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz and Senator Elizabeth Warren have both implored Argentina’s Wall Street creditors to reach a settlement that will not hobble the country during a global health crisis. But there’s no compromising with Bolsonaro, whose response to the novel coronavirus has already contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands and could plunge Brazil into a prolonged downturn.

While some governors have successfully mitigated the damage of Bolsonaro’s actions, the outbreak in Brazil shows no immediate signs of abating, even as the country begins to reopen. Since the president ducked out for a cachorro-quente, Brazil’s seven-day moving average of daily coronavirus deaths has ticked up from 912 on May 23 to 979 on June 12, with the average number of daily cases soaring from approximately 16,300 to more than 26,000 over the same period.

Toward the end of April, after the city was forced to bury its dead in mass graves, Manaus Mayor Arthur Virgílio issued a plea for international aid. “We aren’t in a state of emergency—we’re well beyond that,” he lamented. “We are in a state of utter disaster…like a country that is at war and has lost.” More recently, intensive care units in São Paulo, the epicenter of the outbreak, have reached a tipping point, as the virus continues its spread through the city’s densely populated favelas.

“Local authorities can do a lot—arguably more than the president could, which is maybe fortunate at this moment,” says Dr. Jeruza Lavanholi Neyeloff, an epidemiologist and planning adviser at the Hospital de Clínicas de Porto Alegre. “But Brazil had everything going for it to be able to respond exemplarily, and if the political circumstances were different, that could have happened. We could have had an aligned, national response, sending the population a clear message of what needed to be done and aiding states in obtaining resources.”

Instead, circumstances have grown increasingly dire. In April, Bolsonaro fired popular Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta, explaining at the time, “Life is priceless, but the economy and employment need to return to normality.” Mandetta’s successor, Nelson Teich, would quit less than a month later amid criticism from the president that he did not push hard enough for Covid-19 to be treated with the malaria drug chloroquine.

One week after Mandetta’s firing, Justice Minister Sergio Moro, whose Lava Jato investigation helped pave the way for Bolsonaro’s political rise, announced his resignation after accusing the president of interfering in police inquiries. Now an investigation into those charges authorized by the Supreme Court could lead to Bolsonaro’s impeachment for obstruction of justice, corruption, and abuse of power, putting him at the mercy of the more moderate conservatives he previously reviled. And despite his inner circle’s threats of military intervention, his grip on power has never been more tenuous.

A Reuters investigation from May found that Bolsonaro played an even greater role in torpedoing Brazil’s coronavirus preparedness than previously reported. On March 13, before the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a pandemic, Brazil’s Health Ministry issued a series of recommendations to limit the virus’s spread. But those recommendations were “watered down” less than 24 hours later at the behest of the Casa Civil, the office of the president’s chief of staff, led by Army Gen. Walter Souza Braga Netto.

Braga Netto, the report reveals, established an intergovernmental “crisis cabinet” that has effectively commandeered the country’s coronavirus response. This cabinet has placed the emphasis on preserving the economy—a strategy firmly in line with the priorities of the economic minister, Milton Friedman disciple Paulo Guedes. According to Reuters, one official recalls Guedes ally Solange Vieira saying of the virus, “It’s good that deaths are concentrated among the old. That will improve our economic performance as it will reduce our pension deficit.” Regional health authorities have subsequently accused the Bolsonaro administration of suppressing Covid-19 data, prompting a Supreme Court justice to order its restoration.

Brazil’s dual constitutional and public health crisis has been years if not decades in the making. Since the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, the opposition center-right Movimento Democrático Brasileiro has seen its legitimacy crater amid a rash of corruption charges stemming from the Lava Jato investigation. Into that power vacuum has stepped Bolsonaro, a former military officer whose only discernible political project is the violent destruction of the left.

“Since the pandemic began, he has really doubled down on defying whatever the mainstream consensus is on the coronavirus,” says Vincent Bevins, the author of The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World. “He saw Trump was doing it, and he likes being called the ‘Trump of the Tropics’ because he believes it makes him look strong. Then he saw his former allies, the governors of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, taking quick and decisive action, and that likely led him to do the exact opposite.”

It is poor people of color who will bear the brunt of Bolsonaro’s recklessness. In São Paulo state, according to a May 7 report from Agence France-Presse, these communities had a 62 percent greater chance of succumbing to the virus, while white Brazilians were more likely to survive a hospital stay. At the end of April, Alicia Bárcena, who leads the UN’s Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, warned that the novel coronavirus could push as many as 29 million people across the region into poverty, wiping out the gains of the commodities boom from the 2000s. As of 2019, 41.4 percent of Brazilians worked in the informal economy—a segment of workers especially vulnerable during the pandemic—while the country’s sprawling favelas have proved a perfect incubator for the virus.

The myriad dangers of this crisis are not lost on Alberto Fernández. Along with a second ingreso familiar de emergencia (emergency family income) of 10,000 pesos (about $150) for low-income earners that had been held up in May, his administration has introduced an interest-free line of credit for autonomous workers and monotributistas, the country’s bottom tax bracket. Perhaps more significantly, he has pledged to focus testing and tracing on at-risk neighborhoods like Villa 31, where confirmed case numbers have climbed over the last month.

“When we’re talking about the coronavirus in the past tense, the story will be the number of deaths in each country,” offers Dr. Pedro Cahn, one of Argentina’s leading infectious disease specialists and a consultant to the president. “No one will remember the number of respirators that were added or even the number of infected. Right now, there’s a certain symmetry between some countries and others, but that can all change. In Argentina, we’ve done well so far, but we can’t say we’re safe while we’re still at sea.”

Earlier this month, Fernández announced that he would be extending the nation’s quarantine yet again, this time until June 28. In the weeks since his last press conference, confirmed cases in Argentina had jumped once more from around 700 to more than 900 daily, raising fears that intensive care units could be overwhelmed. Among the president’s concerns were the growing health crises in Chile and Brazil, the latter of which he feared might spill into the northern province of Misiones.

Fernández also discussed his recent meeting with the nation’s preeminent business leaders. Previously, he had told them that it was time they earn less, but here he struck a more conciliatory tone, suggesting the country’s captains of industry were in agreement with his view that Argentina’s brand of capitalism must be fairer—with all of the contradictions inherent in such a statement.

If Argentina is to prove that politics can be used not only to ensure people’s survival during a pandemic but also to radically redistribute resources, its government will have to build a new consensus. In addition to supporting a one-time levy on the country’s biggest fortunes to offset the costs of the coronavirus, Fernández has proposed overhauling Argentina’s regressive tax system. Only then, he says, can the nation reach what he has called a “more just social equilibrium.”

To that end, the president revealed plans last week to nationalize Vicentin, a principal agro-exporter currently facing bankruptcy after receiving a $300 million loan from Banco Nación under his predecessor, Mauricio Macri. Argentina needs food sovereignty, he reasoned, and the company would be used as a public utility. Asked if he had heard the calls on the right that the country had taken one step closer to becoming Venezuela, Fernández could only chuckle. “I’ve always said there are two types of opposition,” he quipped. “One that governs and one that tweets.”

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