by Henrique Castro Barbosa
Since 2014, when Dilma Rousseff was reelected president, Brazil has been facing a great political polarization. The accompanying divisive and crippling public debate raging between the far right and the left resulted in Rousseff’s felonious impeachment in 2016. Following this, Jair Bolsonaro was elected in 2018, supported by his neofascist supporters. Now in power, Bolsonaro continues invoking his 21st-century McCarthyism, blaming every problem on the existence of the left. He does so to cover up his aggressive policies against the working class, media, indigenous populations, and the environment.
With the first confirmed Brazilian case of COVID-19 in late February, Bolsonaro might have behaved like a leader. Unsurprisingly, that has not happened. Instead, he manifested his irresponsibility toward Brazilian citizens, and especially the working class, by participating in negative speech. He has called the disease “a little flu,” and declared war against isolation policies in the name of the economy.
In the first weeks of March, the number of the infected began to rise in the country. Bolsonaro, ignoring the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations to avoid mass gatherings, encouraged his followers to join in a March 15th protest against the Supreme Court and the National Congress decisions that he disliked. He made an appearance at that rally, shaking hands and handling people’s phones to take selfies. Even though he was on an official trip to Florida to speak with Donald Trump days earlier, he met with several members of the public who tested positive for the new coronavirus. The crowd had lots of elderly, the main Covid-19 risk group.
With the rise in cases of COVID-19, state governors began opposing the president. They started to adopt isolation policies, including closing non-essential services and suspending classes in schools and universities. They also started opening field hospitals in stadiums and large cultural centers in the cities with the most sick people, such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Fortaleza. This caused an angry reaction from the president.
Bolsonaro accused these state governments and the media of feeding mass “hysteria.” He and, at first, his economy minister, Paulo Guedes, advocated for the suspension of such measures. Their justification was that they would damage the economy. On March 19th, during a TV interview, he advocated for the reopening of churches and shopping malls, going against the recommendations of his own health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta.
On March 24th, while giving a speech on national television, Bolsonaro once again targeted the media and state governors. He claimed they were trying to maintain a state of chaos, and asked that schools be reopened and economic activities returned to normal. He minimized the seriousness of the disease and even joked about it, saying that, if he contracted the virus, he would not be affected due to his athletic history. After the speech, some governors supported the president, deciding to loosen isolation policies. The southern city of Balneário Camboriú, a well known and high class tourist destination, held a parade, sponsored by a local businessman, celebrating the decision. The event revealed the power interests that were shaping public policy.
Two days after that, he had plans to submit a decree against isolation policies regarding churches and lottery houses, which were prohibited by federal law. At the time, he said that lottery houses would be a safe service because booths have armored glass that prevent contamination.
The public and other politicians strongly disagreed with the president’s way of dealing with the crises. Major cities all around the country started to organize demonstrations against him. Protestors banged pans from windows during Bolsonaro’s speeches on national television. During the last weeks of March, congress received several impeachment requests coming from congress and lawyers, and a people’s petition with over a million signatures was circulated. A Supreme Court member issued a withdrawal request due to the president’s failure to attempt to prevent the spread of the virus, which would represent a crime according to the Brazilian Constitution. Several of his own ministries, including the economy, and the few governors who had announced they would loosen isolation policies, changed their positions and started to disagree with Bolsonaro. Nevertheless, the president still firmly supported an end to the isolation policies.
The federal government began a video advertising campaign on March 27th. It appeared in official Instagram accounts, with the title, “Brazil can’t stop,” and elicited criticism. The day after that, a federal justice prohibited the campaign. The videos were taken off social media, and the president’s Orwellian secretary of communication denied that the campaign ever existed. On March 29th, Bolsonaro became the first world leader to have a tweet deleted by the platforms.
As an African proverb goes: “When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.” While Bolsonaro stubbornly poses as the voice of reason, in the face of nationwide opposition, while fulfilling his fanatic supporters’ expectations; working-class people, who need the most help, are being neglected. The president expects low wage workers to get back to work so big companies and businessmen aren’t affected so much, while he ignores the importance of the health and lives of working people.
The opposition, fighting hard, managed to obtain monthly emergency aid of R$600 (US$107) per low-wage worker and R$1200 (US$214) for single mothers. But that is still not much given the conditions in which most Brazilians now find themselves. Many people have lost their incomes and do not have adequate resources to face the pandemic.
Yet, the president defends ruling class interests in the name of the economy, and turns his back to the poor. Even with the popular pressure against him, he fired his health minister, one of the advocates for the social distancing policies. On April 16th, Bolsonaro nominated Nelson Teich, who endorses the president’s point of view. Bolsonaro now acts like a spoiled child, ignoring all scientific and impartial social recommendations, dealing with the crises only through a genocidal capitalist politics.
The northeast states, mainly governed by left governors, created a scientific committee to address the crises, a practice that should be adopted on a national scale. Moreover, due to the crisis the public is facing, it is time to tax large assets and incomes. Right now only 23% of the total collection comes from those types of taxes, the rest is derived from consumer taxation. If the country taxed the full amount, they would have an extra R$272 billion (US $48,63 billion) to address the pandemic. This money should be used to keep working class people’s incomes at the level they were pre-pandemic and secure essential jobs during the crisis. These monies could be distributed to states and cities so they could invest in people’s needs, such as to treat the sick, prevent further contamination, distribute grains and water to poor people, and ensure the suspension of rents, power, and water bills. But instead, Bolsonaro keeps on denying the gravity of the situation, while securing big business and high-class interests. This is unsustainable.