June 12, 2020
IntelBrief: Bolsonaro’s Failure to Deal Effectively with COVID-19 Destabilizes Brazil
After surpassing three-quarters of a million cases, Brazil now has more cases of COVID-19 than any country in the world other than the United States. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s dismissive attitude—he remarked that ‘we are sorry for all the dead, but that’s everyone’s destiny’—has drawn well-earned criticism, while his administration’s mishandling of the disease continues to ravage Brazil. Last week, the Brazilian government removed comprehensive numbers of coronavirus related deaths from the official website of the Health Ministry, leading to accusations of a cover-up and an attempt to suppress data. Several high-ranking health ministers have recently resigned in protest against what they see as Bolsonaro’s inept response, which has included a general disdain for science and an embrace of conspiracy theories and unproven remedies to treat the disease.
Daily deaths in Brazil are the highest anywhere in the world, with residents of Brazil’s favelas, densely populated areas plagued by poverty and little access to resources, disproportionately impacted. According to Sao Paulo’s health department, poor residents are ten times as likely to die from the coronavirus as wealthier citizens. Sophisticated drug trafficking organizations have filled the governance void in the favelas, which in turn, have offered these gangs an increased sense of political legitimacy and social clout among local residents. The lack of official government services, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, has provided drug gangs with the opportunity to step in and offer instructions on proper hygiene and how to avoid transmitting the disease. Protests against Bolsonaro’s inept response to COVID-19 have now dovetailed with protests against racism and socio-economic inequality. Tensions between the police and Brazilian citizens are nothing new, and heavy-handed tactics by police in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities have led to accusations that police act with a sense of impunity and are rarely held accountable for extra-judicial killings.
What Bolsonaro once incredulously described as a ‘measly little cold’ is destabilizing the largest country in Latin America, with a population of approximately 210 million people. Brazil’s healthcare system is overstretched and unable to accommodate the surging number of cases. Mass graves have become an all too common sight, particularly in areas where Brazil’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens live, including its indigenous communities. The coronavirus-related chaos has led foreign direct investment to suffer and increased concern throughout the country that the Brazilian military could look to get involved in politics under the guise of providing stability. Brazil was ruled by a military dictatorship for two decades, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s, until it transitioned to democracy and began to flourish as an economic powerhouse. Paradoxically, Bolsonaro and his inner circle have played up rumors of a more direct role for the military in politics and have sought to portray the issue as one of law and order, pitting the military against Brazil’s Supreme Court and judiciary.
Bolsonaro’s administration has been dogged by allegations of corruption and deliberately spreading misinformation on social media, drawing comparisons to U.S. President Donald Trump and other populist leaders throughout the world. Like Trump, Bolsonaro has sacked health officials who have disagreed with his aggressive push to reopen the economy, speculated that COVID-19 has been overhyped by the media, and bashed the World Health Organization (WHO) for ‘ideological bias.’ Also like Trump, Bolsonaro has clashed publicly with state and local officials who have taken a stricter approach to preventing the spread of the disease. Political leaders who resort to strongman tactics and authoritarian rhetoric have further exacerbated the coronavirus crisis and the underlying socio-economic issues that COVID-19 brought to the forefront.
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