Brazil undone


Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro meets supporters during a protest against Brazil’s Congress and Brazilian Supreme Court amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Brasilia, Brazil on March 15, 2020. PHOTO/Reuters/The Indian Express

The Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, is the only world leader widely believed not only to have Covid-19 and to have lied about it, but to have knowingly spread it to untold numbers of his followers. Time (or Veja, the country’s leading news magazine) will tell, but at the very least, the circumstantial evidence is curious. Bolsonaro called on his largely evangelical base to hit the streets on 15 March to shut down Congress and the Supreme Court. Under quarantine after his return from the US – 25 members of his entourage have been infected with coronavirus, making Bolsonaro the centre of the largest initial cluster in Brazil – the president broke out of his motorcade to shake hands and high five those calling for the government buildings to be burnt to the ground.

According to Fox News, citing the president’s son Eduardo as a source, Bolsonaro tested positive for coronavirus on 13 March; but as soon as the story aired, Eduardo denied it, accusing Fox of fabricating the whole thing. The president has since had two more tests, both allegedly negative, but unlike the governor of São Paulo, João Doria, tasked with confronting the outbreak at its epicentre, Bolsonaro refuses to make his test results public, claiming they are a state secret. The military hospital where Bolsonaro was tested turned over a list of those who had tested positive to the district government in Brasilia, but redacted two names. The minister of the Supreme Federal Court, Alexandre de Moraes, struck down Bolsonaro’s measure restricting access to information, so the truth should emerge sooner rather than later.

Bolsonaro’s approach to Trump is monkey see, monkey do, so the day after Trump floated the idea of an early return to work, against the advice of leading military figures, Bolsonaro went on national television to announce that (in his experience?) coronavirus was just ‘a little flu’, and that since old people rather than children were dying in other countries, Brazilian children should return to school and young people should return to work. Businesses were to reopen, since the politics of quarantine was ‘a thing for cowards’. According to the speaker of the lower house, Rodrigo Maia, Bolsonaro was under pressure from investors after the market in São Paulo crashed, losing 52 per cent of its total value between 17 January 17 and 20 March – the biggest drop in the world, according to Goldman Sachs.

In addition to the number of coronavirus cases and deaths (as of 26 March, 2915 and 77 respectively), Brazil is also leading Latin America in capital flight: Mexico has lost $2 billion in foreign investment; Brazil has lost $12 billion. The real, meanwhile, has dropped to a new low of $5.02 to the dollar. The economy minister, Paulo Guedes, who studied under Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago and at the University of Chile under Pinochet, warned Bolsonaro that Brazil could not afford to quarantine beyond 7 April; the country was already in recession before Covid-19 arrived. To informal workers, who make up four-fifths of the economically active population in urban settlements (favelas), where at least 13.6 million people live, Guedes is offering 200 reais in vouchers, which will not be enough to keep them from having to work to survive. He is asking business owners to cut wages and hours by half rather than lay workers off. The lower house of Congress approved an increase from 200 to 600 reais ­– still not enough to live on – along with 36 billion reais in small business loans so that bars and restaurants can pay three months’ salary to employees. Both require Senate approval.

London Review of Books for more

Comments are closed.