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Brazil: Tale of Two Crises

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Date: Apr 08, 2020

Author: Antonio Saadipour Sellés

Brazil’s Health Ministry confirmed its first case of coronavirus on February 26, 2020. As of April 8, the country has reached a total of 14,511 confirmed cases and 720 deaths as a result of the devastatingly contagious virus. Many world leaders looked at the distressing numbers in their countries as a stark warning that it was time to start implementing severe lockdown measures in the interest of public health: restricting travel, shutting down schools and businesses indefinitely, and enforcing orders of self-isolation, among other measures. President Bolsonaro, however, has taken the path of most resistance, one that Brazilians have and will continue to pay for with their lives. 

Repeatedly, Bolsonaro has minimized the threat of the illness, going so far as to refer to it as a “little flu” and attacking the media for propagating what he has deemed hysteria-laced rhetoric surrounding the pandemic. He has defied strict guidelines announced by his own health ministry, encouraging Brazilians to get back to work and even participating in a rally surrounded by hundreds of his supporters. Criticism of his efforts, or lack thereof, only intensified after he shared pictures of engaging with supporters despite public health recommendations of self-isolation.

The situation has become so grave that state governors and local politicians have been forced to either flatout ignore or directly criticize Bolsonaro’s comments and recommendations in order to guarantee public safety. Brazil’s Supreme Court, noting the potential for disaster in Bolsonaro’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, has asked to suspend him for 180 days, citing his failure to responsibly manage the crisis as the principal reason. Facebook and Twitter have even had to order the removal of a video of the head of state endorsing chloroquine phosphate as an effective antiviral drug. 

Bolsonaro’s apathy towards this pandemic may have allowed the virus to spread within the country and claim more lives. The first confirmed cases of coronavirus in Brazil were discovered in more affluent neighborhoods in Sao Paulo and gradually spread throughout the rest of the country. Growing concerns over the severity of the pandemic coupled with Bolsonaro’s muddled response to it have ignited protests across cities in Brazil. Towards the end of March, Brazilians participated in nightly panelaços (pot-banging) to express their dissatisfaction with the administration’s handling of the virus, culminating in what some are calling the largest demonstration against Bolsonaro to date.Fora Bolsonaro!” (Bolsonaro out!) could be heard from windows and balconies all over the country as citizens urged their president to resign. 

What does this mean for communities with historically limited access to healthcare? On April 1, a 20-year-old woman from the Kokama tribe, which resides deep in the Amazon, became the first indigenous person to contract the virus. This is particularly concerning when considering how, throughout centuries, indigenous populations have been decimated by diseases brought from abroad. Respiratory illnesses, which can be brought on by the coronavirus, are already the main cause of death for indigenous groups, therefore making the threat that much more concerning. If Bolsonaro can’t be trusted to act decisively in order to curb the number of cases of the virus and protect citizens with the most access to healthcare and information on the virus, one can imagine what little care he will give to protecting the wellbeing of Brazil’s more than 300 indigenous groups.