In hard-hit urban centers such as Rio de Janeiro, people still pack the streets. The boardwalks are still populated by beachgoers, including the elderly. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is still downplaying the threat, declaring last week he would celebrate the weekend with a massive barbecue. Following pushback, he rode a water scooter instead.
Rather than unifying the country against a common threat, the pandemic response is further dividing this deeply polarized society. Bolsonaro, whose instinct has been to do nothing, has deferred to state governors, who in turn have punted the responsibility of implementing the strictest measures to municipalities. The result has been a confederacy of conflicting and contradictory measures that change not only by state and city, but also by city section.
Some cities in the northeast and north, where the health system is particularly precarious, have begun to institute lockdowns. But others are delaying for as long as possible — or struggling to win the support of the population. The mayor of disease-ravaged Manaus, the largest city in the Amazon forest, is warning that a lockdown would result in social chaos.
In the early days, much of the country adhered to broadly adopted containment policies. People avoided gathering in groups. Nonessential businesses closed. Most stayed home unless it was absolutely necessary. Now, as the pandemic begins stretching into its third month, those measures are increasingly being ignored.
In parts of São Paulo state, the area hit most severely by the country’s outbreak, less than 50 percent of people are still obeying social isolation requests by officials.
“Unfortunately, what has caused people to relax is the president’s erratic behavior,” São Paulo state governor João Doria said last week. “Going out on strolls … denying science and the understanding of isolation and being a terrible example for Brazilians.
“This countermessaging is negatively influencing the public opinion.”
Another complicating factor has been the country’s poverty. Nearly 40 percent of the population works informally — as street vendors, day labor and in other low-paying jobs, and the government has done little to address their needs. Many will go hungry if they don’t work. Many live in densely packed favelas, where social distancing simply isn’t feasible.
Still others don’t believe their local leaders or newspapers. Faith in institutions here has been dropping for years, and many think the dangers are either overstated or the pandemic is being used by officials to steal public money.
“Pandemic of corruption!” one Brazilian said in an emblematic tweet. “Staying at home is only a smokescreen.”
As the numbers of cases and deaths spike, researchers are warning that if Brazil doesn’t get tougher and forcefully impose a lockdown soon, it will be courting disaster. “Adopting a lockdown too late … would result in a humanitarian catastrophe of proportions unimaginable for a country like Brazil,” one of the nation’s most prestigious research institutions, the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, warned late last week.
Brazil’s medical system, considered perhaps the strongest in Latin America, is already teetering on the edge. Some states have run out of hospital beds. People are languishing for days in chairs, waiting for a bed to open. Others are dying at home, either because they couldn’t receive medical help or feared they wouldn’t. Hospital workers and gravediggers seethe on their way to work.
Rodrigo Romano is a health care worker at a hospital in Manaus, now suffering one of the country’s highest death rates.
“We can’t support the whole world,” he said. “We can’t even support what we have now.”
Every day, he can’t believe what he sees in the streets. “But people don’t have any sense, walking around, taking the bus. Traffic is terrible! People are going in every direction.”