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The Brazilian disaster – An intersection between authoritarian, covid-denialism and austerity

The Brazilian disaster – An intersection between authoritarian, covid-denialism and austerity

Benjamin Fogel | Amandla Online | 31 March 2021

Benjamin Fogel | Amandla Online | 31 March 2021

Brazil is collapsing under the weight of an uncontained Covid-19 outbreak and it is no accident. As of writing over 320,000 Brazilians have died from Covid-19 and 12 million are infected. Intensive Care Units are running out of space across the country, hospitals are running out of basic medication and the country’s vaccine rollout is already a disaster.

Experts are calling it the worst health crisis in the history of Brazil and it is as unprecedented as it was predictable–– Jair Bolsonaro’s extreme-right wing government has deliberately invested in worsening the Covid-19 crisis as part of its political strategy. As former Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta put it, “When the pandemic came along, there was a choice between life and death. Bolsonaro chose death.” According to the country’s leading Health Institute Fiocruz, “The analysis by our researchers suggests it’s the biggest collapse of the hospital and health service in Brazil’s history.”

Bolsonaro’s Homicidal Covid Strategy

The Bolsonaro government has deliberately attempted to deepen the Covid-19 crisis as a political strategy from spending a fraction of the funds available to combat the coronavirus to promoting denialism, encouraging agglomerations, attacking social isolation measures and promoting unproven drugs instead of securing vaccines. For instance, according to a study by the University of São Paulo’s Centre for Research and Health Law Studies and the NGO Conectas, the Government’s strategy from the beginning has been to ensure the propagation of Covid-19 among the population under the pretext of creating herd immunity and protecting the economy by spreading anti-public health propaganda. Furthermore, undermining the efforts of governors and mayors to contain the virus, like categorising non-essential activities as essential in order to undermine social isolation measures.

Proliferating a fake news agenda, Bolsonaro, has on innumerable occasions, dismissed the dangers of what he calls “a little flu” and repeatedly implored Brazilians to “quit whining about the pandemic, there is nothing I can do.” Not only has he feigned helplessness, he has also repeatedly mobilized his supporters to protest against lockdown measures, the Supreme Court and Congress. This is rooted in his political strategy which sought frame Brazil’s responses to the pandemic zero-sum game – a choice between health and the economy.

Stoking the fires of the covid-19 crisis and taking advantage of the polarization, alienation and demoralization that crisis inflicts. For Bolsonaro, Covid-19 was another opportunity to wage political war against his enemies, provide cover for a rapacious anti-environmental and neoliberal agenda, as well as presented an opportunity to impose his authoritarian politics on the country. Moreover, Bolsonaro hoped to take advantage of the manufactured health and related social crises by transferring the responsibility and blame for the pandemic and its effects to state Governors in order to boost his re-election chances in 2022 – one such example being his political enemy, São Paulo Governor João Doria.

The absurdity of Bolsonaro’s response is exemplified in the fact that in the early stages of the covid crisis, he got rid of not one, but two Health Ministers because they supported responsible public health policies instead of snake oil cures. Worse still, the control of Brazil’s Health Ministry was handed to the Military–– based on the understanding that they would support his efforts to promote chloroquine as the primary medical response to Covid. The predictable policies could be seen in Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon, as its public system collapsed, in January 2021 it ran out of oxygen, but has an oversupply of chloroquine. Then Health Minister Eduardo had been warned about oxygen shortages in Manaus, but Brazil government opted to flood the city with the anti-malarial drug.

This type of sadistic and homicidal response to the pandemic has led critics of Bolsonaro to label his Covid policy as “genocidal”. The world watched in horror while the Brazilian government did nothing and Venezuela sent emergency oxygen tanks via plane to the embattled city. Facing mounting political pressure Bolsonaro has got rid of yet another Health Minister – Minister General Eduardo Pazuello – the scapegoat for the unfolding disaster, but the government has not fundamentally changed its public health strategy.

A failed Vaccine Strategy

Vanderlecia Ortega dos Santos, or Vanda, from the Witoto indigenous tribe, receives a Covid-19 vaccine in Manaus, Brazil, on Jan. 18, 2021.

With one of the largest public health systems, the SUS, in the world with world class vaccine roll out facilities and experience, Brazil had the resources to be an example to the Global South in terms of a public health response to Covid-19. Brazil has the capacity to develop and produce its own vaccines thanks to its cutting-edge public health institutes. Already, the country’s vaccine rollout is falling apart.

While neighbouring Chile and Argentina were cutting deals for vaccines and building the capacity to rollout the vaccines, Bolsonaro spent most of last year questioning the effectiveness of vaccines and promoting anti-vaxx sentiment. The government refused to enter into negotiations with companies such as Pfizer and attempted to ban the Chinese made Sinovac from Brazil. While the government technically based its plan on a huge deal with AstraZeneca, it did next to nothing in terms of building a strategy, instead the official line was more-or-less– who needs a vaccine when you have a Covid Kit?

The “Covid kit” is a ‘pre-emptive’ covid cocktail of unproven remedies that is said to be taken to ward off the bad effects of the virus. Doctors report hundreds of patients coming in with severe cases of Covid claiming “I don’t understand what is happening I took the Covid kit.”

Despite the fact that the government has consistently set up obstacles to the country’s mass vaccination efforts, Brazil is still vaccinating over 200,000 people per day, significantly more than the entire total of doses administrated in South Africa at the time of writing. However, the vaccine roll out has been led by states rather than by national government, who secured vaccines independently and started vaccine rollouts in spite of opposition from the federal government. The government only started to act on securing vaccines after the São Paulo state government started producing Sinovac through its world-class Butãnta Insitutute and launching its own vaccine rollout programme. Other states have followed suit and cut deals with the Russian government for the Sputnik vaccine. But this isn’t enough, major cities and states are fast-running out vaccines and there is still little indication that the national government has a covid vaccination strategy.

A Global Threat

Brazil’s health tragedy was manmade, it is the result of years of austerity and a vicious extreme-right government of Covid denialists. This doesn’t only put the Brazilian population at extreme risk, it also poses a threat to the entire world. Brazil’s uncontained pandemic gives the virus ample opportunity to mutate and produce new more dangerous strains. Already the data suggests the first new variant P1 identified in Brazil is not only more contagious, but also more deadly. hospitals across Brazil have reported uptakes in younger patients being hospitalized and dying. Even the richest city in the country, São Paulo, known for its world class healthcare facilities is running out of oxygen.

While Bolsonaro deserves the majority of the blame for the disaster, his predecessor Michel Temer introduced one of the harshest austerity programs in the world that took specific aim at public health spending. The SUS was stripped of funds, short of Doctors and under attack years before Covid arrived in the country. Congress too deserves its share of the blame for propping up Bolsonaro’s government. Now controlled by Bolsonaro’s allies, Congress has failed to serve as a check on the President, instead it has blocked separate 62 impeachment requests levelled against the president.

Bolsonaro was able to enjoy record popularity last year despite the unfolding disaster thanks to what relates to a 2000 Rand monthly emergency grant for unemployed and informal workers, but this program was cut. Bolsonaro was able to take credit for the emergency salary despite being initially opposed to it. Finally, it seems as if Bolsonaro’s strategy is backfiring, as he is starting to slip in the polls as the country’s health system collapses, but his political position is still reasonably secure thanks to his alliance with the Military and the corrupt collection of rent-seeking political parties known as the centrão (Big Center) who dominate Congress.

Bolonaro’s style of governance has proved highly personalistic, he has demonstrated again and again a willingness to discard political allies (no matter how powerful) and political parties (he dumped the party he was elected through soon after taking office) in order to protect himself and his family. His political vision centres on his and his family’s own political and economic fortunes; if one of his politician sons falls out with an ally, Bolsonaro will view said ally as an enemy. His own personal proclivities have been at the forefront of Brazil’s response to Covid from the beginning: from promoting chloroquine and other unproven drugs as the primary public health strategy to attempting to undermine various vaccination programs to score points against rival state governors.

There are over 6,000 active-duty members of the Armed Forces serving in Bolsonaro’s government and there are more Generals serving in cabinet than during the height of the Military Dictatorship. Brazil’s Armed Forces were strong supporters of the president, but there are indications that the Military and Bolsonaro are the midst of a chaotic confrontation after Bolsonaro fired his Defence Minister for his lack of commitment to politicising the Armed Forces. In protest all three chiefs of the various branches of Brazil’s Military resigned. At the writing things are too chaotic and unclear to offer extended analysis, but regardless of these various power plays and intrigues, the Military is in Government and this itself demonstrates that it is deeply politicised and bares responsible for the catastrophic record of the Bolsonaro regime.

During the worst week since the pandemic began, Bolsonaro spent his time attacking state governors for implementing desperate lockdown measures, and even went to the Supreme Court in a failed attempt to ban lockdowns and urged Brazilians to not wear masks on public transport. Several prominent critics of the government including former presidential candidate Ciro Gomes of the centre-left Democratic Labour Party and Felipe Neto, the most popular youtuber in the country, were indicted through Military Dictatorship era laws for accusing Bolsonaro of “genocide”.

During one Facebook Live, Bolsonaro even pretended to choke to death, while every state in the country is running out Intensive Care Unit beds. Even the richest city in the country, São Paulo, known for its world class healthcare facilities is running out of oxygen.

The tragedy unfolding in Brazil was manufactured by Bolsonaro and now poses a threat to the world’s efforts to contain the virus. Former president Lula da Silva has had his political rights restored and stands a good chance of defeating Bolsonaro in next year’s election, for this reason Bolsonaro and his cronies are afraid of legal repercussions for their deliberate mishandling of a public health crisis and the multiple corruption scandals/investigations hovering over Bolsonaro and his family’s head.

It should come as no surprise that a president that has threatened on numerous occasions to machine gun supporters of the Workers’ Party and ran on a platform of increasing extrajudicial killings by the police should be indifferent to the mass death of the population, particularly given that the working class are the ones who are dying en masse.

Benjamin Fogel is a P.h.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine. 
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