Brazil leads the region in the number of coronavirus cases and deaths. With President Bolsonaro testing positive for the virus it symbolises the deep crisis the country faces. As Brazil deals with he pandemic, the leadership of President Bolsonaro is also faced with an economic and political crisis brought by the pandemic and on going corruption investigation against the President’s family.
As Latin America emerges as the new COVID-19 virus hotspot, Brazil leads the region in both confirmed cases (2,394,513) and deaths (86,449) (as on 28 July 2020) with President Jair Bolsonaro himself just recovering from the virus. He has been seen in public shaking hands and interacting with crowds of supporters stating that the virus is nothing but like the common flu.He continues to meet people without masks and social distancing. He has also been seen with a box of anti-malaria drugs, although there is no scientific proof that it is effective against the COVID-19 virus.
President Bolsonaro is faced with criticism for his handling of the pandemic and its economic consequences. President Bolosnaro has refused to impose national restrictions on movement of people and economic activities, stating that the economy needs to function as the poor have no other alternative. Yet, despite the President Bolsonaro's efforts, Brazil will face a recession in the coming year as a result of its existing economic slowdown and the added recession as a result of the pandemic. In addition Brazil also faces a political crisis with President Bolsonaro expressing his displeasure with the judicial system, deepening the political divide with the opposition. The paper looks at these three crises before President Bolsonaro.
The Health Crisis
Despite high case numbers, health experts feel that the lack of testing is masking actual figures of cases in Brazil. World Health Organization (WHO) and Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) had recommended a combination of more testing and tracing measures, health care system preparedness and social distancing measures to keep the virus from spreading. Nonetheless, a coherent policy is missing in Brazil. Two health ministers have resigned in the recent past due to differences with the President over strategies to contain the virus. Recently, the health ministry had to face censure from the Supreme Court for its decision to no longer provide the public with the cumulative totals of coronavirus cases and deaths. President Bolsonaro has threatened to take Brazil out of the WHO claiming “ideological biases”, after the organisation warned against the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as treatments for COVID-19 virus.
The mismanagement of the crisis has not only caused alarm in Brazil but has also posed a question for other nations of the region. The PAHO has urged nations to continue to be vigilant and implement proven public health measures. In Brazil, President Bolosnaro’s approval rating “dropped 9 percentage points …to 39%, while his disapproval rating hit 55%, according to a MDA/CNT poll that interviewed 2,002 people between May 7-10. The survey found that most Brazilians disapprove of his campaign to reopen the economy against medical guidelines.”
The Economic Crisis
President Bolsonaro has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the virus and condemned state governors who have imposed restrictions on social and economic activities. He has stressed that it is not in the interest of ordinary Brazilians. He is not wrong. “With about 25% of the population in poverty, many can’t afford not to work and live in cramped quarters that make social distancing nearly impossible.” Despite efforts by the Bolosnaro administration to continue with economic activities, Brazil's sluggish economic growth before the pandemic and the expected global recession in the wake of the pandemic is likely to make economic recovery difficult. As consumer markets fall, it will effect Brazilian industries such as automobiles and other durable goods industries. It will also effect people who are employed in services sectors such as in beauty salons, gyms, tourism as a result of social distancing norms.
The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the global economy and it is unlikely that Brazil would escape its consequences. “Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) could drop 4% in 2020, according to Fitch Ratings.Other economic forecasts point to a contraction of 5%.” Even if the restrictions are lifted, economic recovery will be slow and unemployment is likely to rise. The virus is going to further impact public finances in the country. The economic recovery plan of $22 billion announced uses nearly all the savings made through the pension reforms implemented in 2019 by the administration. The economic reform agenda remains frozen impacting international investments much needed by the country.
The Political Crisis
Amid the public health crisis, former Judge Sergio Moro, who resigned as justice minister in May 2019, has accused the President of political interference after the latter fired the head of Brazil’s police force, who was leading the investigation against the President’s son for alleged kickback schemes and promotion of misinformation. Moro has led investigations into the corruption charges that resulted in the imprisonment of former President Lula and impeachment of President Rousseff. His resignation has dented President Bolsonaro’s image as a crusader against corruption. Deepening the crisis, President Bolsonaro has denounced the investigations and stated that it would “plunge Brazil into a political crisis.” His supporters have called for closing the courts. Opposition parties have stated that the President is undermining democracy and want impeachment proceedings. Of the six Presidents who preceded President Bolsonaro, two were impeached and one is in prison on corruption charges. While there is precedence, it seems unlikely that Congress will process the impeachment requests as it would effectively bring down the government during a health crisis.
The allegations come as President Bolsonaro continues to lose support in the Congress. His strong positions on homosexuality and the LGBTQ community, his verbal attacks on minorities, women and indigenous communities, his views on climate change and disregarding the need to protect the Amazon rainforest have angered people and alienated other lawmakers. His current mismanagement of the global health crisis has deepened the distrust.
President Bolsonaro’s disregard for preventive measures, no policy direction from the federal authorities and growing differences between state and federal governments has compounded the problem. The recent corruption charges have further sharpened the political divide.
Public anger against President Bolsonaro is not yet visible in demonstrations, as the people who are opposed to him stay at home. Nonetheless, they have expressed their displeasure, while following public health guidelines, by banging pots and pans in their neighbourhoods. On the requests to impeach him, the speaker of the House, Rodrigo Maia has said Brazil needs to focus on the pandemic responses and the impeachment requests would be looked at an “appropriate time”. It would seem that the health crisis that has been dismissed by the President is proving to be a support for his presidency, for the moment.
*Dr. Stuti Banerjee, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
President Bolsonaro has recommended the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as effective medicine against the COVID-19, without any medical evidence to support the claim. Excessive and un-supervised use of the anti-malaria drugs could lead to death.
https://theprint.in/world/president-bolsonaro-in-a-political-fix-as-brazil-turns-into-hotspot-for-covid-pandemic/420323/, Accessed on 19 June 2020
Julia Leite, “With more daily deaths than UK, Brazil is new coronavirus hotspot,” https://theprint.in/world/with-more-daily-deaths-than-uk-brazil-is-new-coronavirus-hotspot/417603/, accessed on 19 June 2020.
https://www.cnbc.com/2020/05/15/coronavirus-brazil-economic-reforms-are-being-blown-off-course.html, Accessed on 20 June 2020.