Brazil: The politicization of a pandemic and the search for order amidst the chaos

Michele Diana da Luz is a PhD student at the Federal University of Pelotas, Brazil

While the world looks with apprehension at the dramatic rise in cases of coronavirus and several countries adopt measures to contain the spread of the pandemic and the loss of lives, in Brazil the health crisis is just one of the concerns of a country that simultaneously faces an economic and a political crisis. 

Even with the lack of tests and the consequential underreporting of cases, the official numbers -over 418,608 confirmed cases and 25,935 deaths[1] – indicate Brazil as the next epicenter of the pandemic, a prospect that the country’s brutal social reality makes even more alarming. Since the seriousness of the problem became apparent, it was understood that tragedy would befall the poorest countries, where the consequences of the pandemic are compounded by the great social inequality and the lack of sanitary, housing and economic infrastructure.

In Brazil’s case, the chasm that separates those who have access to care from those who do not goes beyond the state’s ineptitude. It is also a political choice. A necropolitical kind of choice, in which electoral gain has been prioritized over the well-being of the population. Even though in Brazil we have one of the largest free and universal health systems in the world (SUS), the recurrent scrapping of its structure over the years has exposed the entire population to deficiencies previously only felt by the poorest. Healthcare has been a citizens’ right in Brazil since the 1988 constitution, requiring the state to provide universal and equal access to health services. However, in reality, we are far from a “democratization of care”, as the middle and upper classes traditionally use private health systems, discouraging investment in the structure and expansion of SUS. Even though this is a distinction that loses strength from the moment the health system collapses[2], it has a bearing on the architecture of policies and on the pressure made against or in favor of them.

In a country of continental dimensions, the social inequality that cuts across north to south is also traversed by regional disparities, causing some regions to suffer the impact of the pandemic more violently than others. The figures express this contrast clearly. Hospitals located in wealthier regions have had a much lower number of deaths than those close to deprived areas, even though the number of cases is 4 times greater in the former compared to the latter. The availability of tests, beds, respirators and professionals is just one aspect of this chasm that separates the chances of survival between the hillside favelas and the city below, as well as between the metropolis and the small towns.

The population density in poor communities in Brazil equals that of entire cities. In the city of São Paulo, one of the areas worst hit by COVID-19, the density is 8,054 inhabitants per km², but this changes drastically from one neighborhood to another. In Morumbi, one of the most affluent neighborhoods, where the population density is 28.32 inhabitants per hectare, the social distancing has an entirely different dynamic and impact compared with the community of Paraisópolis, the fifth largest slum in the country, located right next to it. In Paraisópolis, this number rises to approximately 1000 inhabitants/ha, more than 45,000 people per km². In this reality, the number of residents per household and the occupational characteristics of the favela pose a challenge to the very idea of ​​social isolation, and policies are required that reflect these conditions. As no solution has come from the government, most favelas rely on the work of NGOs, the donation of private companies and the rulings of organized crime to contain the spread of the virus. In a place where the state is usually a synonym of abandonment and a parallel order dictates the rules, drug dealers have taken the responsibility for protecting people.

Were this not a sufficiently chaotic scenario, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, has addressed the pandemic with behavior so divorced from reality that they seem to be summoned from dystopian literature. Attached to a denialism that is partly ideological, partly strategic, Bolsonaro goes against the security measures recommended by the WHO and even by the Brazilian Health Minister to reject the seriousness of the pandemic. Since the beginning, he has displayed serial disregard for the health of the population, claiming that it is only a “light flu”; that “the media ispurposefully tricking citizens about the dangers of coronavirus”; and replying “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?” when asked about the then-record 474 deaths that day. All the while encouraging a return to work and to regular life. 

Given this, mayors and governors took the lead and adopted restrictive measures to contain the damage in their cities and states, limiting the movement of people, suspending commercial and industrial activities and closing borders. These were harshly criticized by Bolsonaro and some businessmen. Both utilized the rhetoric of fear to pressure people to continue working. Claiming that “hunger would kill more than the virus” and that “Brazil could not afford a pause in production that would lead to poverty, unemployment and violence”, some well-known Brazilian millionaires used their influence to subliminally support the President’s speech. After that, demands and demonstrations calling for an immediate reopening ensued in many places and the social distancing percentage dropped considerably.

To the displeasure of Bolsonaro and his most ideological supporters, the then Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, a traditional right-wing congressman with strong party ties, defended the position of governors and mayors for following and reinforcing WHO instructions on social isolation, gaining him a political stature that became uncomfortable for Bolsonaro. With much greater popularity than the President, Mandetta’s technical performance became yet another obstacle to the former’s electoral aspirations, which were already shaken by the governors of the states of SP and RJ. They had previously supported him but now criticize his actions heavily. 

Incensed by what he deemed insubordination, Bolsonaro dismissed the Minister of Health in the midst of the pandemic. In his place he put Nelson Teich, a docile doctor with no political nor public health experience, which drastically altered the possibility of coping with the health crisis and the access to information. Teich could not stand Bolsonaro’s authoritarian and anti-scientific posturing either, and he resigned after only 29 days under the president’s coercion. In his place, Eduardo Pazuello, an active army general, has taken over as an interim health minister. Over and above his persistent irresponsibility, Bolsonaro’s stance reflects the growing insecurity of a president who has been losing his already limited bargaining power and popular support. This was the first of three acts that could culminate in the downfall of his government.

His decision to confront the governors and the former Minister is a bet on people’s electoral perception. It is a strategy that seeks to mitigate the poor outcomes of his government’s economic measures (despite the approval of liberal reforms defended in his campaign) and ignores its constitutional obligation to health and social security for the population. Decrying an economic collapse caused by governors’ COVID-19 responses is Bolsonaro’s attempt to cover up the fact that the economy was already in jeopardy, even before the pandemic. He is betting on a position in which citizens are forced to choose between fear of exposure to the virus or fear of misery and insecurity due to lack of jobs: as if the state could do nothing to mitigate the effects of either. 

This is a desperate attempt to safeguard his incumbency through endorsements of the market and the church, two of the groups who helped his campaign to office. Bolsonaro was elected by a conjunction of sectors, whose interests were articulated mainly in the antagonism established with the Workers’ Party (PT) and in the appeal against corruption. His discourse associated with PT and the political establishment. However the groups that sustained Bolsonarism began to dissolve, forcing it to strengthen itself with those that still remain at his side. Currently these are represented by the church (mostly neo-Pentecostal), the military, and the market, which still has great confidence in his “super minister of the economy”, Paulo Guedes. 

However this confidence has been strongly shaken by the second act, when one of Brazil’s most popular political figures, justice minister Sergio Moro, quit. Accusing the president of firing the federal police chief and obstructing investigations targeting his sons, Moro has caused one of the biggest crises on Bolsonaro’s mandate so far. His image, largely associated with the anti-corruption crusade that imprisoned many politicians and businessmen – among them former President Lula – was a valuable symbol for the right-wing.    

After this split, the President’s belligerence reared once again. On this occasion, Bolsonaro warned of what might become the third act. Amid an endless exchange of accusations with Moro (who testified against Bolsonaro on 3rd May), the president spoke to his supporters in a live transmission through Facebook. At the time his supporters were protesting ‘unconstitutional’ and ‘anti-democratic’ lockdown measures[3] and asked for the closure of the Supreme Court and Congress as well as a return to authoritarian measures used during Brazil’s military regime. Bolsonaro, backing the protestors, declared that he had reached his limits, adding that “we have the armed forces at the people’s side”, in an insinuation that the military could intervene if the Supreme Court keeps blocking his decisions. 

At the same time, Bolsonaro reached out to the traditional and infamous “centrão”, a group composed by a wide range of political parties with no specified ideological orientation, who seeks closeness to the President, whoever he is, in exchange of support for his bills. Needless to say, this support comes at a price: loss of power and yet another contradiction with his alleged fight against the “old politics”. It is still too early to know if Bolsonaro’s choice will be to waive his power to avoid an impeachment or to seek more drastic measures through military force. While his desperation manifests, for Brazilians, hope rests on the unreliable sense of duty of the “centrão”; or that Bolsonaro’s influence in the military is minor. The second seems to be more concrete, as the military has stated more than once that it would not support undemocratic measures. 

Meanwhile, the pandemic spreads fast and shows that the constant call for the non-politicization of the pandemic seems not only unrealistic but impossible when political decisions are the dividing line between saving and not saving thousands of lives. It is a moment in which ideological disputes are materializing with greater force, exposing the direct impact of actions and putting at stake the worldviews which sustain it. There is no doubt that the outcome of the triple crisis will be painful. But if there is a silver lining to aim at, it is the possibility of rebuilding towards a more inclusive and democratic society in each of the three spheres. 


[1] Numbers of 28/05/2020.

[2] While the states of Pará and Amazonas (North of Brazil) face the collapse of the health and the funerary systems (hundreds of bodies are stuck in refrigerated trucks outside hospitals), some of the richest flew to São Paulo’s best private hospitals in aerial ICUs to avoid the overcrowding in the cities of Belém and Manaus.

[3] Even though Brazil has not declared lockdown, some states have adopted social distancing measures to contain the spread of the virus. Proper lockdown has only taken place (briefly) in the states of Maranhão and Pará, after the health system collapsed. 

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