15 May 2020. As Brazil lurches from one political crisis to another, the death toll rises steadily, making it the new epicentre of the global pandemic. Over 16,000 have now died since it began.
Doctors and specialists point to a disastrous lack of coordination by the federal government in fighting the virus. Initiatives by state and city administrations to reduce contamination by ordering social isolation and lockdowns are criticised and undermined by President Jair Bolsonaro, who has made it abundantly clear that his priority is the economy, not saving lives. He said, ‘So 70 per cent of the population will get the virus? But if the economy collapses, many more will die of hunger.’
Bolsonaro warns of a future of ‘unemployment, hunger and misery’ arising from the tyranny of social isolation. Video: Folha Política, 16 May 2020
In numbers, 70 per cent means 140 million Brazilians getting infected, with at least 10 per cent, or 14 million, needing hospital treatment, of whom an estimated 10 per cent would die, that is 1.4 million who would die of the virus. But if an adequate economic safety net was introduced, nobody need die of hunger. It is worth remembering, that before the coronavirus epidemic began, Brazil already had 13 million unemployed, and Bolsonaro never expressed any concern for them.
Instead of leading a national effort to fight the virus, Bolsonaro has fought with his health ministers, who, being doctors, cannot agree with his non-scientific ideas. He has replaced them, at least temporarily, with a general who will do what he orders. The ministers had recommended horizontal social isolation as the best way of reducing infections, whereas Bolsonaro wants only ‘vertical’ isolation, of at-risk groups. But a study by the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) found that over 50 per cent of the adult Brazilian population, 86 million people, has at least one of the factors – chronic illness, hypertension, diabetes, obesity, asthma, heavy smoking – which increase the risks of becoming seriously ill with Covid. And the fewer the years of schooling, the greater the risk, rising to 80 per cent.
Brazilian health minister exits after four weeks on the job. Video: CGTN, 16 May 2020
Already, before the peak in cases has even been reached, hospitals in many capitals are overwhelmed. Years of underfunding the national health service, SUS, plus a huge lack of tests and respirators, already mean that many are dying undiagnosed and untreated, at the doors of the hospitals, or lying for days on chairs in A&E, because there are no beds in intensive care, or there are beds but no respirators, or there are respirators but no qualified staff to use them. Harrowing scenes are transmitted every night on TV news. The number of health personnel becoming infected and dying, doctors, nurses, technicians, is far higher than in the US and Europe. One of the few jobs to flourish in the epidemic is that of gravedigger, with cemeteries expanding and aerial views showing long row after row of freshly dug graves.
Images from the hospital with the highest number of deaths from Coronavirus. Video: Jornal O Globo, 2 May 2020
Only a month after he was appointed, the submissive doctor Nelson Teich, chosen by Bolsonaro to replace the popular Luiz Henrique Mandetta, whose crime was to follow WHO protocols, has resigned, out of his depth in the crazy world of the Bolsonaro government.
Nelson Teich steps down as Brazil’s Health Minister after just weeks in the job. Video: AlJazeera English, 16 May 2020
He was demoralised by Bolsonaro’s insistence on the magical powers of chloroquine, and his idiosyncratic idea of what constitutes an essential service. For Bolsonaro these include manicures, haircuts and working out at the gym.
The ministry of hooligans
Just how dysfunctional the government has become was revealed by a two hour long video of a cabinet meeting on 22 April, submitted by ex-Justice minister Sergio Moro as proof of his accusation that the president was trying to manipulate the federal police to protect his son Flavio Bolsonaro from investigation for possible crimes in Rio. Moro resigned in protest. Two days ago the man who was Flavio Bolsonaro’s ‘suplente’ or vice, when he was elected senator in 2018, Paulo Marinho, revealed that federal police in Rio had deliberately postponed a planned operation to investigate Flavio’s suspicious activities, in order not to harm his father’s chances in the second round of the presidential elections.
Federal Police say they will investigate accusation by Paulo Marinho against Flavio Bolsonaro. Video: Jornalismo TV Cultura, 18 May 2020
In this cabinet meeting, the language is peppered with expletives, curses and insults, led by Bolsonaro himself. You could be forgiven for thinking it is a meeting of football hooligans in a pub, not of government ministers in the presidential palace.
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Jair Bolsonaro has revealed himself as not only being incapable of leadership at a time of national crisis, putting his own re-election plans and the unblinking protection of his son Flavio above the need for unity and collaboration, but also, some say, as a sociopath completely unable to empathise with the suffering of those who are dying and those who are mourning their loss. He has declared open warfare on the governors and mayors who insist on policies of social isolation and lockdown, telling São Paulo businessmen it is ‘war’ and they must put extreme pressure on governor João Doria, otherwise ‘there will be chaos, looting of supermarkets, civil disobedience’.
But it is the government which is contributing most to social unrest by its chaotic administration of the emergency monthly payment of R$600 for the millions of people, informal workers, unemployed, single mothers, left without income because of the pandemic.
Promised to millions via apps and bank accounts, the system did not provide for the hundreds of thousands who have no access to either, and instead queued for hours, some even camping out overnight outside bank branches in an attempt to claim their payment, risking being infected in the process.
When the second monthly payment was delayed, Bolsonaro blamed it on applicants’ fraud. It turns out that the biggest source of fraud was in the Armed Forces, where at least 70,000 claimed for a payment they were not entitled to. For Bolsonaro, they then became ‘just recruits, poor lads who didn’t know they were doing wrong’.
For some analysts, there is method in Bolsonaro’s madness. An increasingly dysfunctional government which is allowing the coronavirus pandemic to take over, creating a scenario of despair, chaos and social unrest, will be fertile ground for an authoritarian adventure, the introduction of a state of siege, an ‘auto coup’.
Have no faith in the military
For those who think the generals in the palace will exert a restraining influence, preventing ‘adventures’, academics who study the military have warnings. Officers in the armed forces, both active and retired, supported Bolsonaro, long before he came to power in 2018, because while they share Finance Minister Paulo Guedes’ neoliberal ideas, and many have MBAs from American universities, politically their heads are still in the Cold War, and the communist threat is still real. The Truth Commission set up during Dilma’s government to investigate crimes committed during the 21-year military regime infuriated them, and they will do anything to stop the PT regaining power.
So they put their money on Bolsonaro, overlooking his defects in favour of his, in their eyes, virtues – virulent anti-communism, anti-PT-ism.
And they have done well in his government. Besides the generals in the Palace who form Bolsonaro’s inner circle of advisers, thousands of officers, mostly from the Army, both active and retired, have been given positions in government ministries, replacing anyone, however well qualified, who has even a whiff of the PT about her or him. They now dominate the Environment Ministry and the Health Ministry while the Amazon Council might as well be called Military Amazon Council, because it is entirely made up of military officers and a few federal police agents, with not a scientist, researcher, environmentalist or indigenous leader among them.
Some congressmen have begun to express concern at their growing presence in the government, demanding to know why unqualified military are being given the jobs of qualified civilians. Deputy Fabio Trad, of the rightwing PSD, asked ‘Why militarise? Is it to make it impossible for the Armed Forces to abandon the government if there is a rupture?’.
Deputy Fabio Trad says, in an emotional address, that ‘Vertical isolation at this moment, when the number of persons infected is climbing, is a crime. Especially in relation to the groups at risk, the elderly and people with diabetes and high blood pressure. The authorities who back this theory are the co-authors of a collective genocide. Video: Fabio Trad’s Facebook page, March 2020.
When in doubt, buy support from the most corrupt
Initially reluctant, the PT has now added its name to the parties and organisations calling for the president’s impeachment. Rodrigo Maia, lower house speaker, has so far refused to put it on the agenda, but the pressure is mounting, as more and more people realise that his attitudes amount to criminal irresponsibility, possibly causing thousands of unnecessary deaths in the days ahead, and his popularity ratings have plunged.
But Bolsonaro is taking precautions. He has begun negotiating with the so-called Centrão, the loose alliance of minor political parties notorious for their willingness to support any government in exchange for perks – jobs and positions in ministries and agencies. His campaign promise of rejecting the ‘old, corrupt politics’ expressed by the Centrão has been conveniently forgotten, because in exchange he gets votes to block impeachment attempts. The exit of Sergio Moro, the paladin of Lavajato, was a cause for celebration by the Centrão many of whom are involved in corruption cases.
And Bolsonaro has just introduced an MP, or executive order, to exclude all ‘public agents’ from culpability for ‘gross errors’ committed during the Covid 19 pandemic. That would guarantee his impunity, but it is being challenged in the Supreme Court. No wonder one of the main targets of opprobrium during the video’d cabinet meeting was the Supreme and its 11 ministers. They could hold the key to Bolsonaro’s future.
Every week in Brazil brings a new twist, another ministerial resignation – three in the last four weeks – another political crisis, another outrageous statement by the president, another terrible number of deaths. How long can it go on for? When will the tipping point be reached?
Will Brazil reach a situation of chaos where people implore the Armed forces to intervene and restore order? Will the appeasement tactics of congress, the Supreme Court, the generals, end in the same way as Chamberlain’s did in 1939 with an open declaration of war, or in the case of Brazil, with an open declaration of war on democracy, with a rupture, a coup? One might as well ask, is God still Brazilian? Nobody knows the answer.
Main image: this virus ‘is like rain – 70 per cent of you are going to get wet’ – Jair Bolsonaro, 3 April 2020. Image from video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Em3XWz5dnXM