Brazil has experienced arguably the worst political response to the pandemic under the leadership of its far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro. His choice regarding COVID-19 has caused an unprecedented tragedy in this country with potentially catastrophic consequences for the entire world.
With the introduction of a new, more contagious variant called P1, the situation in Brazil has deteriorated significantly. The daily death toll rose steadily, reaching 4,250 on April 8, unheard of in any other country since the health crisis began. Even India, which has broken its own records in recent days, has not seen so many casualties.
Health care systems have collapsed in many cities. Oxygen is rationed, intensive care units are overcrowded, and there is not enough staff and equipment everywhere.
Due to the lack of anesthetics, patients reportedly had to be tied before intubation. Hundreds of people died on stretchers, on floors in hospitals or at home, even when their families could get the oxygen tubes they needed in parallel routes.
Three factors combined to create this hell.
First, Brazil is one of the most unequal countries. Overlapping deep-seated inequalities increases the vulnerability of disadvantaged populations. This fragility was compounded by the resignation of President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 in an operation that bore all signs of a parliamentary coup.
The pandemic is yet another demonstration of inequality: COVID disproportionately affects black Brazilians, the poor and the unemployed.
Secondly, Brazil has always suffered from significant political and institutional constraints, which intensified after the expulsion of Rousseff. Since 2016, the two governments have promoted neoliberal reforms that have made jobs more precarious, undermined social safety nets, and severely underfunded public services.
To underpin these reforms, the constitutional amendment limited all federal non-financial spending by 20 years. This new tax regime legitimized brutal and arbitrary budget cuts. And it is this austerity program that has led to the degradation of the British-inspired Brazilian universal health care system in recent years.
Finally, there is the role of Bolsonaro himself. As COVID spread, the president systematically downplayed the risks and blocked any centrally coordinated response. He also contradicted mayors and governors when they tried to impose their own containment, social distancing, or masking.
This subversive work caused complete confusion in the country, which Bolsonaro then used to justify his rejection of restrictions. The president also urged the country’s health ministers – four a year – to focus on unsubstantiated therapies like ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine as it allowed the health care system to collapse.
Social support in decline
It was the left in Congress who took the only serious measure to protect the poor: emergency monthly aid of R $ 600 (about $ 140) during the pandemic, as well as other incentive instruments such as credit lines for SMEs. These measures were approved as part of a “military budget” that circumvented constitutional budget deficit limits.
Bolsonaro then presented this emergency aid as his gift to the people, thereby increasing his popularity.
However, this income support program ended in January, with the start of the new fiscal year, as the latest wave of the pandemic intensified. In April, it was replaced by a much more modest subsidy of R $ 250 a month for up to three months – a measure that is promised to be offset by even deeper administrative reforms and additional budget cuts.
Lack of federal support has prevented states and municipalities from imposing local containment measures, which has exacerbated the pandemic.
Necropolitics in action
The situation in Brazil is an excellent example of applied necropolis. This concept, formulated by Achille Mbembe, is the ultimate expression of social and political power through its ability to decide who can live and who must die. In this iteration, COVID is presented as a natural fact affecting only the weak.
In fact, this is not true, but such a policy of resentment, conspiracy and disinformation is typical of the current cohort of authoritarian rulers in many countries who disseminate inaccuracies with the specific purpose of creating conflict, diverting attention and blocking any solution.
Bolsonaro said he was avoiding serious measures against the pandemic in order to protect the economy. However, there is never either one or the other. International experience shows that economies (for example, South Korea or Vietnam) that have resolutely fought the coronavirus have had fewer deaths and less economic slowdown. Those who sought to avoid isolation suffered more human casualties and an economic downturn. The Brazilian economy is currently in a steep decline.
Bolsonaro’s setbacks in the face of the pandemic have allowed the government to quietly implement a series of initiatives that remove labor and environmental protection by opening up indigenous territories to agriculture and mining.
They also distracted attention from corruption scandals involving his family.
In the Brazilian tragedy, Bolsonaro’s responsibility goes far beyond his incompetence or the hypocrisy of his actions. He deliberately facilitated the spread of COVID in order to polarize the political game in his favor and help unleash a completely destructive government program.
And while the population is left to fend for itself in the face of the coronavirus, the government is prioritizing neoliberal reforms, dismantling the state, and environmental destruction. Thus, Brazil is hit by both explosive mortality and the worst economic downturn in its history amid growing social and political chaos.