Brazil is now one of the epicentres of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The number of confirmed cases is over 200,000, and deaths over 15,000, making it the fourth largest outbreak in the world.
The still almost-exponentially-increasing number of cases has, however, not been enough to convince Jair Bolsonaro to establish any sort of federal social distancing policy. The president was instead interviewed at a floating barbecue party (!) as the number of deaths reached 10,000.
Local governments have tried to institute their own policies, but lack of federal funding, extreme poverty and years of underfunding of the national health system have led to mass graves in the biggest cities, and some poorer states of the north of Brazil.
It was predictable that Bolsonaro would follow Trump and Johnson’s initial response to Covid-19, encouraging only “horizontal” isolation where only high-risk or vulnerable people isolate. What is bizarre is his ongoing insistence on horizontal isolation, which has cost him two health ministers. Both sufficiently right-wing to have been appointed by the president in the first place, but have been fired for refusing to follow Bolsonaro’s policy.
Bolsonaro has also recently lost his Justice Minister, and that-judge-that-sent-Lula-to-prison, Sergio Moro. Moro resigned over a request from the president to appoint the leader of the federal police in Rio, where Bolsonaro’s son is being investigated for money laundering and funding of militias.
Bolsonaro’s popularity has taken a hit since Moro’s resignation, but small and enthusiastic demonstrations in his favour have continued. Bolsonaro has spoken at the demonstrationss saying he will not allow for any more interventions against his rulings by the congress and senate, and that he “has the military on his side”. The demonstrators demand a military intervention and protest “the fake virus”.
Because of the federal nature of the country, state governors and mayors in Brazil have been able to organise isolation for certain regions. However, the majority of public money is controlled by the federal government, which means full lockdown has been particularly difficult to introduce.
Amongst the worst affected states are Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (the first affected places, where the virus was introduced in high society gatherings, attended by rich people who had recently returned from Europe), and Ceará, Amazonas and Pernambuco, in the north and north-east of Brazil — poorer states where the health system collapsed much quicker and mass graves were dug to keep up with the mortality.
Extreme poverty and inequality are an obvious aggravating factor for the pandemic in Brazil. Social distancing is nearly impossible in favelas with incredibly overcrowded houses (often lacking plumbing) whose habitants are in precarious work they cannot leave. The monthly “help” given by the government is 600 reais per month (about 60% of the minimum salary). Some cities have reduced the amount of public transport to encourage people to stay at home, but without instituting a lockdown or offering security to workers, this policy has resulted only in buses being overloaded.
Following the collapse of the health system in Amazonas, in the last few weeks the northern states of Maranhão, Amapá and Pará have been the first to declare a lockdown, and other states such as São Paulo are considering it. Volunteer groups of scientists have come together to offer advice to local governments that are defying the resolutions of the federal government.
This might mean hope of more radical social distancing policies being instituted elsewhere in the country.