Coronavirus Pandemic Overwhelms Brazilian City Of Manaus (Getty)

Bolsonaro vs. COVID-19: What’s Really Going On in Brazil?

Brazil is now second in the world for the number of coronavirus cases after the United States. The South American developing nation of over 209 million now has more than 25,700 recorded fatalities from the virus. Specifically, Brazil now has over 414,000 recorded cases of COVID-19 and some experts have projected this number is likely to be five times higher by August. According to a report cited by Reuters last month, Brazil likely has up to 12 times more coronavirus cases than the amount being officially recorded. So far testing has been minimal with only approximately 560,000 tests performed (less than .5% of the population), although the Brazilian government aims to test 46 million citizens (22 % of the population) by this December.

At this point Brazil is the epicenter of the coronavirus in Latin America and a surging global hot spot. US President Donald Trump recently blocked all Brazilians and foreigners currently in Brazil from entering the United States.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has long been one of the biggest skeptics of COVID-19, dismissing it early in the pandemic as a “little flu” and stating that the crisis was being exploited by his enemies to remove him from power and intentionally crash Brazil’s economy. Conflicts between Bolsonaro and state governors who wanted stricter lockdowns such as the Governor of Goiás Ronaldo Caiado have caused division and political turmoil in the geographically massive Latin American nation.

Brazil’s Raging Political Firestorm

In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, Brazil has also been embroiled in an intense political showdown.

Bolsonaro fired the head of Brazil’s federal police last month and other key officials after learning they were investigating his son Flavio Bolsonaro and Carlos Bolsonaro for corruption and disinformation offences. A video showed Bolsonaro saying he would go up the government ranks as far as necessary to fire anyone who tried to “screw” with his family. The firing led Bolsonaro’s key partner and justice minister Sergio Moro to resign in protest at Bolsonaro’s executive intervention.

The situation has now escalated, with a series of “fake news” raids carried out May 27, including reportedly targeting Carlos Bolsonaro and what one Sao Paulo paper called his “fake news racket.” The 29 warrants seizing computers and information from Bolsonaro supporters and bloggers has outraged the President, and conservative Brazilian Congressman Douglas Garcia said the raids were nothing less than an attempt to “silence the voices of conservatives on social networks.”

Speaking on May 28, Bolsonaro angrily denounced the “absurd orders” of federal police acting on orders of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court (STF), saying the situation is already “f***ing over” and bringing it back into the spotlight is an attempt to drag back up unfounded allegations and oust him from power. Bolsonaro said that the current fake news crisis is being staged to portray him as a “right-wing pseudo-dictator” and wrest power from him. Bolsonaro has previously expressed support for extrajudicial killings and torture, but indignantly referred to the necessity of upholding liberty and democracy in his May 28 remarks. The president ended his press conference when a journalist tried to ask him a question and walked away with his entourage to leave in a waiting vehicle. 

Bolsonaro Bucks the Trend

Bolsonaro has long claimed there is an agenda to steal his election win through the COVID-19 crisis by collapsing Brazil’s economy and fomenting political chaos. Despite early warning signs from other nations across the globe, Brazil responded relatively late by implementing quarantines and closing public facilities and restaurants. Bolsonaro attended rallies with anti-lockdown protesters, taking selfies with their phones and insisting that a lockdown would be far more harmful as a whole than letting the disease take its course.

Brazil’s former minister of health Nelson Teich quit after one month on the job in the middle of this month after falling out with Bolsonaro. Teich had taken over after Bolsonaro fired the previous Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta for insisting that social distancing was necessary. The new Minister of Health is General Eduardo Pazuello, a military man without medical experience.

The coronavirus hit Brazil relatively late compared to other South American countries, with the first case recorded in Sao Paulo on Feb. 25, 2020 and the first death in Sao Paulo by March 17 from a 62-year-old man who had recently been to Italy. COVID-19 spread in Sao Paulo and other major regions and cities of Brazil but Bolsonaro was cautious about locking down, noting that “the economy has to function because we can’t have a wave of unemployment.”

As state governors exercised authority to lockdown they clashed with Bolsonaro who urged that “life must go on” and made it clear he was still going out shopping. He also promoted hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19 and said closing everything would be a surefire path to “breaking Brazil.” By May 16 Brazil’s coronavirus death toll was over 15,000 and is now surging, reaching 21,000 five days later. Cases are particularly prevalent in northern cities like Manaus and crowded, poor favelas in the south which are home to around 13 million densely-packed low-income citizens with minimal access to healthcare. Bolsonaro now says the fight against coronavirus is a “war” but remains disquieted by the prospect of extending the economic standstill.

Death Toll Doubling Every Five Days

The most alarming number so far out of Brazil is that the death toll is doubling every five days at the current time and Brazil has the highest transmission rate in the world. Here in Goiania near the capital the number of cases is still remarkably low with life mostly continuing as normal apart from hand sanitizer everywhere you turn, masked people on the streets and businesses locked down. Locals express frustration with the closure of businesses and question when things can return to normal, while others express fear of the tidal wave of infections in the country and have relatives who are being treated for COVID-19.

COVID-19 Isn’t Just Killing Brazil’s Elderly

As it tears through the favelas of Rio, Sao Paulo and in Brazil’s north, the coronavirus is not just killing Brazil’s elderly. One of the most shocking statistics of the pandemic in Brazil is that the mortality rate for COVID-19 in Brazilians under 35-years-old is 65% higher than in developed nations, as Globo reported. As in other nations, most of those dying from the disease are male but Brazil has more female victims than most other countries as well. While one reason for the higher amount of younger people dying from coronavirus in Brazil could be that comobordities in the elderly are distorting the data, a more worrying possibility is that many younger Brazilians live in close quarters, crowded neighborhoods and lower-income areas.

Brazil’s Class Divide and COVID-19

Brazil’s earliest cases of COVID-19 started among wealthier middle and upper class individuals who could afford to travel and imported it from abroad. Similar patterns occurred around Latin America. The disease has quickly spread in the favelas of Rio and Sao Paulo, with service industry workers often contracting the disease and elderly family members without good access to healthcare services dying. Of course, coronavirus does not look at your wallet before it kills you, but the class divide is certainly also being thrown into sharper contrast by the disease’s pattern of transmission and wider impact.

Reality Check

The situation in Brazil is and should be cause for concern and there is no way to confidently state that the situation will decline in severity in the near future. Nonetheless, the skeptical analyst must take into account that Brazil may not actually be second in the world in COVID-19 cases. For one thing, the real numbers of China’s coronavirus cases and fatalities are clearly much higher than reported, and Iran likewise tapered off accurately reporting its case and death count. Turkmenistan, as another example, is forbidden from public statements on COVID-19 and doctors are not permitted to officially treat the disease. So when Turkmenistan reports “no cases” and Brazil reports hundreds of thousands we need to understand the exponential influence of political censorship on numerical transparency.

Still, Brazil and Bolsonaro are in for a tough fight.

The truth is that Bolsonaro is both the object of strong and targeted political opposition and has also contributed to a uniquely chaotic governance scenario that intensifies Brazil’s lack of readiness to effectively fight the virus. Although the actual benefits of full lockdown on transmission and fatality rates from the disease are fair to question there’s no doubt that Brazil’s approach so far has been far behind much of the world.