Polarization and Negligence: The Pandemic in Brazil

Miriam Gomes Saraiva  

(Note: According to the WHO, at the time this article was written, Brazil had reached a total of 5.590.025 cases of Covid-19, and 161.106 deaths. This means an average 757.93 deaths per 1 million people).

On March 12th, 2020, the first death due to COVID-19 was announced in Brazil. At that point, there had already been several identified cases, but this was the first time that one was made public. Subsequently, the Ministry of Health, directed by doctor Luiz Henrique Mandetta, declared a set of norms based on the importance of social distancing, that concluded in the decision of closing schools, limiting employees to remote work, and allowing essential activities only.

The uneven implementation of these measures in the initial response is linked to the size of the country and the uneven distribution of cases between its cities. The cities with the highest concentration of cases – San Paulo, Río de Janeiro and Manaos – had established these social distancing measures, however, the overcrowding of hospitals had been an unavoidable event.

An inevitable politicization of the pandemic

The politicization of COVID-19 was immediate. President Jair Bolsonaro offered a less concerning outlook of the pandemic. In various statements, he said that it was nothing more than a “gripecita” (a “little flu”), and he opposed confinement claiming that such a measure would have a negative effect on the economy.

While the rates of infection and death toll of COVID-19 were rising, it was also becoming clear that Brazil needed to adopt an articulated arrangement between the federal, the regional and the local authorities to achieve an effective and fair combat of the virus spread: yet, president Bolsonaro continued to deny the danger of the virus.

In April, one month after COVID-19’s first hit in the country, Bolsonaro asked the health minister to resign because of his opinion on social distancing. By then, the death toll had reached 2,347. With the change of the health minister an open confrontation began between the federal, regional, and local authorities. The main point of conflict revolved around the one with the power to legislate. The solution arrived from the Supreme Court: it divided the legislatorial power between the three spheres of government.

The spread of the disease advanced through the most vulnerable parts of the population. Meanwhile, the regional governments acted spontaneously and without coordinating security measures. Every step towards controlling COVID-19 turned into a battle between the federal government and the regional authorities, between the researchers and the legislature.

The building of a myth

The purchase of equipment and medicine also became difficult. On many occasions, it was delayed by the federal government. Bolsonaro opted for defending the use of chloroquine as a treatment: on several occasions, he explicitly advertised the drug. The Brazilian Army purchased supplies for production of chloroquine directly in their pharmaceutical lab, and there was enormous pressure on the new health minister, Nelson Teich, to approve its use. Faced with these pressures, Teich resigned after being one month in office only. General Pazuello took the office as interim minister and, on his first day of action, he approved the use of chloroquine without asking for confirmation from a doctor or scientist.

During Pazuello’s four months as an interim minister, the country went through its worst period of the pandemic. Through this time, unequal control regulations were put in place by governors and mayors, reflecting a strong politization of the pandemic.

Bolsonaro kept continuously defending the use of chloroquine with his explicit contempt for the use of masks and his repeated initiatives that provoked large gatherings. The spread of COVID – followed by deaths – reached indigenous communities and the government acted negligently by vetoing parts of a law that demanded defensive actions for indigenous peoples. Friction with traditional media and science became everyday events. The political dispute with governors – especially with João Doria of San Paulo and Wilson Witzel of Rio de Janeiro – seemed to strongly influence the president’s behavior.

Obvious limitations for a failed strategy

With respect to the international effort against COVID, Bolsonaro’s statements were contested by the World Health Organization, despite Brazil having joined the WHO’s multilateral effort, COVAX. The Brazilian government also refused to sponsor the resolution by the United Nations demanding global action to access medicines, vaccines and medical equipment to control the spread of the coronavirus.

Accusations that China was a potential architect of the virus were made in statements by the president and Foreign Affairs minister Ernerso Araújo.

At a regional level, no dialogue was established with neighboring countries: indeed, the borders were closed. Brazil was seen as a country with erratic behavior and therefore difficult to establish relations with. Bolsonaro has not even shown interest in meeting with members of the Forum for the Progress of South America (PROSUR).

In this context, there have also been accusations of embezzlement of national funds that were apportioned on the control of COVID-19. These accusations were addressed to both the executive and the legislative branches. The governor of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel, was removed from office by the Justice Department on charges of corruption related to projects meant initially to contain the coronavirus.

The quest for a reelection

Progress in the inquiry of a vaccine has opened a new round of frictions. The federal government signed an agreement with the University of Oxford and AstraZeneca for the production of a vaccine at the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio de Janeiro.

In San Paulo, the governor, João Dória, signed an agreement for the production of CoronaVac vaccines from Sinovas at the Butantan Institute. Health Minister General Pazuello promised to several governors that he would buy doses of the CoronaVac, but the president disallowed him, saying that the federal government would not buy the “Chinese Dória vaccine.”

Currently, the testing of two vaccines is underway and they are waiting for a final approval.

In the economic field, there is a common initiative between the legislature and the executive to provide emergency support to the most vulnerable. Their agreement ensures that the economy is managed to grow moderately, which also works as a way to increase support for the regime of Bolsonaro.

The help concludes in December, and the president is looking for a way to replace the “bolsa familia” program with a new assistance program identified by his name… a way for him to try and secure votes ahead of his 2020 reelection campaign.

Miriam Gomes Saraiva is a professor at the Universidade do Estado do Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.


To quote this article, please use the following reference: Miriam Gomes Saraiva (2020),“Polarization and Negligence: The Pandemic in Brazil”. https://crisesobservatory.es/polarization-and-negligence-the-pandemic-in-brazil/


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