“We are very much in the upswing of this pandemic, particularly in the global south,” said Mike Ryan, the World Health Organization top emergency expert, in a briefing in Geneva where he pointed to the severity of the crisis across Latin America.
“Overall the health system is still coping in Brazil, although, having said that, with the sustained number of severe cases that remains to be seen,” Ryan added.
The depth of the calamity hitting the region’s most populous nation was not unexpected: Public health experts, journalists and opposition politicians warned of the risks the virus posed in Brazil’s teeming cities, marked by stark inequality, densely-packed slums and uneven access to public goods.
“Everyone who’s been watching Brazil, who’s been seeing the numbers increase day after day, week after week, knew that it was headed in this direction,” Anya Prusa, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute in Washington, told HuffPost last month. “It’s not a surprise, but it is a real humanitarian tragedy.”
In Brazil, as in the United States, the pandemic swiftly took on a political dimension. President Jair Bolsonaro has been conspicuous in his skepticism, initially dismissing the threat as a measly cold, while continuously squabbling with state governors who enacted lockdowns that he feared would cause undue damage to the Brazilian economy. His administration briefly stopped publishing coronavirus-related data but bowed to public outrage and a supreme court order to resume publishing the statistics last week. Bolsonaro also feuded with his own health minister and is now, in a matter of months, on his third official in the post, a loyalist with no medical experience.
“This is the worst public health crisis we’ve faced — and it has come at a time when we have the worst government in the world,” said Daniel Dourado, a public health expert from the University of São Paulo, who told the Guardian that thousands of lives could have been saved by a swifter and less erratic response.
As in previous pandemics, Brazil’s most vulnerable have suffered most. “The virus has struck Brazil’s poor, mostly black favelas disproportionately,” wrote Marina Lopes for The Post. “In São Paulo, people who live in poorer areas and contract the virus are up to 10 times more likely to die than people in wealthy areas, according to data released by the city’s health department. Black São Paulo residents are 62 percent more likely to die of the virus than white residents.”
Though heavily concentrated in major cities, the virus is also hitting some of Brazil’s most remote communities. “The disease is reaching communities hours from the nearest intensive care unit,” noted my colleagues Terrence McCoy and Heloísa Traiano. “Indigenous leaders say nearly 230 indigenous people have already died, many in Brazil’s most isolated reaches, and they expect that number to rise.”
Bolsonaro has a track record of inflammatory rhetoric against the country’s indigenous population and those living in its crime-ridden slums. Rather than helping institute more effective quarantine measures and improving medical access for the poor, he’s harped on a controversial “cure” for the virus, pushing the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which many public health officials have warned is no panacea and also potentially dangerous.
“Decisions are being made not based on evidence and empirical data but rather on anecdotal reports,” Denise Garrett, a Brazilian-American epidemiologist who worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for two decades, told the New York Times. “Bolsonaro invested a huge amount of money into an action that has not been proven to be effective at the expense of increasing testing and contact tracing.”
Meanwhile, online and in the streets, Bolsonaro and his supporters are locked in political and legal battles, including cases involving his sons and allies. They rail against a host of adversaries, from supposed “left-wing” judges in the supreme court to obstreperous lawmakers in Congress to an “enemy” media working to undermine his presidency.
That might sound familiar to American readers. But the stakes in Brazil are possibly higher than in President Trump’s United States: Opposition activists and politicians have pointed to the possibility of Bolsonaro attempting a “self-coup,” invoking emergency circumstances to subvert the power of some of the country’s major independent institutions.
“The so-called guerra de poderes, the war among Brazil’s institutions for power and primacy, has been raging for some six years now,” ever since a major anti-corruption case that implicated a vast tranche of the political establishment began, wrote Brian Winter of Americas Quarterly. “The main difference now is that Bolsonaro and his allies seem more willing to defy the courts if necessary, believing the military will have their backs. That and, of course, a pandemic … with no signs of slowing, plus a recession likely even worse than the one in 2015-16. Brazil’s troubles only seem to get worse.”