Bolsonaro is not fit to lead Brazil through the Coronavirus pandemic

Photograph: Jeso Carneiro/Flickr

Jair Bolsonaro’s handling of the Covid-19 epidemic in Brazil will result in a social catastrophe of unparalleled proportions. Not only has the Brazilian president belittled the severity of the situation and opposed social distancing, he has encouraged the population to disrespect lockdown rules and return to “normal life” on an almost daily basis.

Bolsonaro has used every opportunity to publicly flout social distancing measures. He has attended public gatherings, organized official events, and regularly spoken to supporters outside his official residence in Brasília. He has consistently expressed indifference towards the impact of the epidemic on the Brazilian people, and when he has spoken about the disease he has appeared more interested in public perceptions than the devastating impact of the disease. On one occasion, he answered “so, what?” when a journalist confronted him with the rising number of deaths in Brazil due to Covid-19.

The rapid spread of the virus in Brazil is a direct result of his actions. According to a recent study, the infection rate of the new coronavirus in Brazil is the largest in the world, and we are still weeks away from its predicted peak. In addition, the Bolsonaro Administration has failed to take effective measures to strengthen the country’s public health system, although it had the time and resources to do it. The first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Brazil on 26 February , more than two months after the first cases emerged in Wuhan, when the situation in South Korea and Italy was already critical.

The combination of a weak healthcare system and high levels of poverty and social inequality has fostered ideal conditions for the spread of the virus. Some experts estimate that the official numbers represent less than ten percent of the true number of cases of both infections and fatalities. The situation has become drastic, with several hospitals on the brink of collapse, and doctors are already having to decide which patients enter intensive care. In places like Manaus, a city of more than two million inhabitants in the heart of the Amazon forest, people are already dying in hospital hallways or at home, and it is very likely that by the end of May every intensive care unit in the country will be occupied and tens of thousands will be on waiting lists.

Brazilian authorities have long disregarded the country’s public health system. Brazil invests 4 percent of its GDP in healthcare, much less than the United Kingdom (10 percent) or Germany (11 percent). Between 2017 and 2020, the conservative governments of Michel Temer and Jair Bolsonaro reduced health expenditure by more than 30 billion reals (4.4 billion pounds), a sum that corresponds to almost 30 percent of the current national healthcare budget. 

The Brazilian SUS (Unified Health System), created in 1989 after the fall of the military dictatorship that ruled the country for 20 years, is one of the largest universal healthcare systems in the world.

The underfunding of SUS under past administrations, however, has fuelled the expansion of private healthcare, and this will have tragic consequences during the current pandemic, as only 44% of intensive care beds are in the public system. Part of the patients who are not insured (two-thirds of the population) will not be able to receive proper treatment if their condition worsens. Most Brazilians cannot afford private health insurance, as its average price is double the minimum wage.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Photograph: Rapheal Nigueira/Unsplash

An Imperial College model suggests that the total number of deaths in Brazil could range from seventy thousand to one million, depending on the scale of social distancing undertaken. And the risk is exacerbated by the living conditions of many in the country, which amount to the most unsanitary in the world. More than 11 million Brazilians live in slums, and almost 30 percent of the country´s households do not have either a sewage system, garbage collection, or piped water. Up to 55 percent of the population live on a daily income of fewer than five pounds, and the limited stimulus package passed recently by the federal government does not provide the necessary conditions for the majority of the population to quarantine safely. Bolsonaro hopes that the most vulnerable segments of society will not endure this precarious confinement much longer, and will start to break lockdown regulations and turn against the governors enforcing them. His strategy favours chaos rather than saving lives.

To avoid a disaster, Bolsonaro should be removed from office as soon as possible. The possibility of impeachment, however, is not yet on the horizon, although the public discussion about it is growing. The outrage generated by Bolsonaro´s behaviour has led some of his political allies and part of his voters to distance themselves from him. A recent Datafolha poll indicated that 38 percent of the population disapproves of the Brazilian president, while 33 percent still approves of him. This gap will grow wider once the effects of the coming economic catastrophe hit the most vulnerable. Once the pandemic fades away, we will see an upsurge of social protest with uncertain outcomes.

The political conditions for an investigation against Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian lower house are ripening. Bolsonaro could be indicted for criminal negligence, among other crimes. However, impeachment will only come to fruition if progressive forces forge an extra-parliamentarian movement strong enough to compel the change-averse political institutions of the country to challenge Bolsonaro in a decisive way.

Gabriel Huland is a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant at the Centre for Global Media and Communications at SOAS. He was born in Rio de Janeiro and lived in Brazil for most of his life.

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