But for Brazil, which has buried some 140,000 coronavirus victims in the past two months, the international response has been more muted. President Jair Bolsonaro in March called on international organizations to help. A group of state governors asked the United Nations for “humanitarian aid.” The Brazilian ambassador to the European Union begged two weeks ago for help: “It’s a race against time to save many lives in Brazil.”
But the response has largely been a shrug, criticism of Brazil’s missteps — and limited action, so far.
“What’s happening in Brazil is a tragedy that should have been prevented,” one member of the European Parliament told the Brazilian ambassador at a hearing this month. “But this [is a] tragedy that was based on wrong political decisions.”
“Instead of declaring war against the coronavirus,” lectured another, “Bolsonaro declared war against science, medicine, common sense and life.”
The contrast between how the international community has addressed the crises in India and Brazil shows how Brasilia’s mounting diplomatic struggles have complicated the country’s coronavirus response. The international image it has spent decades cultivating — environmentally focused, amiable, multilateral — has been undercut by a president whose administration has insulted much of the world at the very time Brazil was in most need of its help.
Bolsonaro, a far-right nationalist who came to power inveighing against globalism, has accused environmentally inclined European countries of colonialism and illegal deforestation. He amplified a social media post disparaging the appearance of French President Emmanuel Macron’s wife. He echoed President Donald Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud, and was the last leader in the G-20 to recognize President Biden’s victory. For months, members of his administration and supporters have fanned racist attacks on China and mocked its vaccine. On Tuesday, his finance minister said China had “invented the virus.”
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Brazil’s federal government has downplayed the severity of a virus that has maimed this country of 210 million. Bolsonaro has called on people to live their lives normally. Enough have listened — either because of poverty, politics or boredom — to undermine uneven containment measures. More than 400,000 Brazilians have died of covid-19, the worst humanitarian disaster in the nation’s history, and the world’s second-highest toll, behind only the United States.
Now, still mired in the deadliest days of its outbreak — 3,001 more deaths were reported Thursday — a country that has long prided itself on being friends with almost everyone finds itself largely friendless.
“The whole world is trying to help India,” said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. “But Bolsonaro has become such an international problem that no one will help him.
“No one is talking about giving Brazil much help.”
Asked why the United States hasn’t moved to support Brazil with the urgency it has shown in India, a State Department spokesperson provided a list of U.S. aid to Brazil, primarily last spring, before the worst of the country’s outbreak, amounting to more than $20 million in government assistance. The spokesperson also noted $75 million in “private sector support.” The aid, most of it sent during the Trump administration, included 1,000 ventilators and 2 million hydroxychloroquine pills.
“We continue to actively engage with the Brazilian government to discuss their needs and find ways to continue to partner with Brazil to help meet those needs,” the State Department spokesperson said.
Other countries have chipped in, too. Germany sent ventilators after the medical system in the Amazonian city of Manaus failed. The World Health Organization has started shipping vaccines through a program to address global inequalities in vaccine distribution. The European Union and its member states have provided some $28 million in grants since the start of the pandemic, according to a spokesperson. In response to a request by Brazil in March, the bloc helped dispatch “80,000 units of critically needed medicines” to Brazil.
But the lack of more international assistance — or even much expression of solidarity — during Brazil’s most desperate months has confirmed fears here that Brazil would pay an international price for Bolsonaro’s confrontational foreign policy and his flouting of coronavirus measures broadly accepted by global leaders.
“On so many levels, the country has lost influence,” said Oliver Stuenkel, a professor of international relations at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in São Paulo.
Brazil has never been a country that could spite the world. Vast, unequal and developing, Brazil has traditionally pursued what Stuenkel described as a “predictable” foreign policy that hinged on building alliances. Year after year, it has tried to extend the reach of its diplomatic corps, one of the largest in the developing world.
Turning against that history was a gamble Brazil couldn’t afford.
“America could get away with having a Trump because it doesn’t need the world that much,” Stuenkel said. “It can produce its own vaccines. But in Brazil, that behavior has been particularly reckless because it’s a country that depends on the international community. We don’t have hard power. We need multilateralism.”
Instead, Bolsonaro’s administration undermined faith in China and its vaccines at the same time Brazil was depending on the country for vaccine materials. Bolsonaro’s former education minister tweeted a racist message last April, drawing a rebuke from China and the Brazilian supreme court. The president’s son Eduardo, a Brazilian congressman, blamed China for the pandemic, then accused it of using 5G for espionage.
The Chinese government warned of “negative consequences” if such rhetoric continued. In January, China’s shipment of vaccine materials to Brazil was badly delayed, leading to speculation and some media reports that the government’s insults had yielded consequences.
This week, just as Brazilian health authorities turned away the Russian vaccine Sputnik V, citing a lack of transparency, Finance Minister Paulo Guedes went after the Chinese vaccine that Brazil does have.
“The Chinese invented the virus,” he said. “And their vaccine is less effective than the American.”
The Chinese ambassador lashed back: “Until this moment, China is the main vaccine and materials supplier to Brazil.”
The ones who are paying the cost of these diplomatic disputes are ordinary Brazilians, said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
“The Brazilian people are suffering and dying in these numbers,” he said. “And that’s the tragic part.”