Brazil’s COVID-19 nightmare: A ship sailing through a perfect storm without its captain

Updated: April 5, 2020 7:04:38 PM

The middle class, which voted largely for him in 2018, bangs pans and pots almost every day at 8 pm with the shouts of “Fora Bolsonaro” (Bolsonaro, get out). There is a perception in Brasilia that Bolsonaro is making a gamble by sharing fake news against social isolation and attacking governors for creating chaos that, he believes, will strengthen him politically.

Bolsonaro distorted the statement of WHO chief to claim that he was in favour of “workers return to work”. (Image: Reuters)

By Florência Costa

Brazil is living a nightmare that is getting scarier by the day. The country is facing huge problems on three fronts: the Coronavirus pandemic that has already killed more than 300 people; a fast-unfolding political crisis; and a recession that may sink the economy. To make the situation worse, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has been mocking the disease, provoking low-income workers to go back to work and threatening to cancel the quarantine mandated by state governors. Bolsonaro, who was suspected of having the infection, refused to self-isolate himself. But, politically, he is completely isolated. By denying the seriousness of the pandemic, he has also become a global pariah, with international media calling him a “danger to Brazil”. As the world battles the virus, Bolsonaro has been busy making insensitive comments and spreading fake news to push his agenda of “reopening the economy”.

In a brazen move this week, Bolsonaro distorted the statement of WHO chief TedrosAdhanom Ghebreyesus to claim that he was in favour of “workers return to work”. In fact, Ghebreyesus had asked governments to “take care of workers financially so they could stay home”. Twitter deleted a couple of tweets from Bolsonaro because they “contributed to spreading misinformation” about COVID-19 situation.

But that hasn’t restrained the Brazilian president. In recent days, he has delivered speeches on national television, calling Coronavirus nothing but “gripezinha” (a little cold) and urging workers to return for work. As most state governors and mayors take actions against the spread of disease, Bolsonaro is becoming insecure as he fears a big challenge from one of them to his candidacy in the 2022 election. Also, he is under pressure from the business groups who had backed his election in 2018.

Ever since the crisis started, Bolsonaro has been sabotaging his own health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a doctor who has adopted all WHO recommendations. The president of Brazil is himself undermining the fight against coronavirus, said the president of the House of Representatives, Rodrigo Maia. In the middle of this crisis, Bolsonaro’s relations with the Legislature and Judiciary have come under strain.

As world leaders take charge of the situation in their countries, Bolsonaro has been busy playing cat-and-mouse games with his own ministers. Every time, Bolsonaro tells Brazilians that they shouldn’t be socially isolated, Mandetta opposes him on television. As per reports coming from Brasília, the president wants to get rid of Mandetta, but the health minister has refused to quit. Bolsonaro has so far not fired Mandetta, fearing a public backlash as the health minister enjoys a strong support among the Brazilians. According to a survey released on April 3, Mandetta’s approval rating was more than double of Bolsonaro’s.

But Bolsonaro continues to harm the healthcare efforts to contain the outbreak. On April 1, Bolsonaro posted a video of a common man in a big market shouting that there was already a “shortage of products because people are not going out to work”. But shortly afterwards, TV reports showed that this one fake news spread by the president to create panic among the citizens.

The pandemic has caused an unprecedented political crisis in Brazil as the president openly fights with state governors, who are working hard to contain the spread. Almost every day, Bolsonaro attacks state governors, especially JoãoDória of São Paulo, the biggest and wealthiest state in Brazil which has the most cases of Covid-19. The fact that the virus has already killed 333 people and infected 8,165 in Brazil (until April 3) matters little to the president of the world’s fifth-biggest country.

But Bolsonaro’s political capital is fast vanishing. The middle class, which voted largely for him in 2018, bangs pans and pots almost every day at 8 pm with the shouts of “Fora Bolsonaro” (Bolsonaro, get out). There is a perception in Brasilia that Bolsonaro is making a gamble by sharing fake news against social isolation and attacking governors for creating chaos that, he believes, will strengthen him politically.

The third front of the Brazilian crisis is the economic front. The Brazilian economy, already in doldrums, has been badly hit by the pandemic. Since the crisis began, the Brazilian stocks have plummeted to the ground, the dollar gone through the roof and investors have fled the country. With job losses and increasing poverty, the situation will only get worse and Brazil’s ultra-neoliberal finance minister Paulo Guedes has shown little imagination to arrest the slump. To make the gloomy scenario even worse, the aid announced by the government to low-income workers took a long time to be officially signed by the President due to bureaucratic hurdles.

A real test of a country – and its leadership – comes during a crisis. Brazil has shown its resolve to fight the pandemic. But the president has abandoned his people. Brazil, right now, is like a rudderless ship sailing through a perfect storm.

(The author is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo. She was a correspondent for the O Globo newspaper in India between 2006 and 2012. Views expressed are personal.)

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