the brazilian tragedy

Carlos Zilio, 1970, DEEP CUT, 50x35


The Brazilian tragedy has several components. Neoliberalism, authoritarianism, low capacity for political leadership, rejection of science and an open contempt for life compound the absence of adequate responses to the effects of the pandemic

Many studies have highlighted the effects of Covid-19 on pre-existing contexts of inequalities. Indetermination and health and economic risks are experienced differently by people, depending on their occupation, their access to resources that allow them to isolate themselves and take care of themselves and others, their housing and health conditions. In other words, the pandemic hits us collectively, but this happens in a way that the hierarchies and forms of vulnerability that already existed condition our possibilities of dealing with its effects.

The same can be said of the political context in which the fight against the pandemic takes place. The state's capacity to deal with the disease and its effects is not built overnight. On the contrary. It is the previous history of institutionalization and funding of health policies that conditions current responses, especially with regard to the ability to treat patients who need hospitalization. In this direction, we could also discuss the capacity for coordination to control the pandemic through massive testing and monitoring, as well as the capacity to offer economic support to workers and small businesses. They all tell us a little about the recent history of the State – and, of course, how decades of neoliberal guidelines activated processes of privatization and commodification, with patterns that emerged globally, but vary according to local political disputes and resistance.

In the Brazilian case, neoliberalism had a hybrid character, delimited by the democratic Constitution of 1988, with a markedly distributive character, and by a political process in which center-left actors and parties played a leading role. The limit of this story is 2016. Not at impeachment of Rousseff itself, but for the opportunities found by those who designed it to approve a constitutional amendment that compromised public spending and determined a divestment policy, lasting 20 years (EC 95). In 2017, changes in labor legislation would come, “flexible” labor relations and reducing guarantees, expanding precariousness in a country where the percentage of informal workers is around 40%.

But it was in 2018 that the country more clearly moved away from the ideals of redemocratization and the values ​​that became norms with the 1988 Constitution. The far-right candidate who won the presidential elections after being, for 30 years, a obscure political, typifies the convergence between a neoliberalism open in its opposition to policies that involve any social guarantee and a conservatism contrary to the human rights agenda that has expanded since the mid-twentieth century. Contempt for science and distrust of scientists and educators were made explicit in Jair Bolsonaro's campaign and, with his election, turned into an accelerated dismantling of the country's Science and Technology system, associated with successive measures to restrict the autonomy of universities. and restrict your budget.

In an alliance that brings together conservative religious, military personnel resentful of the criticism of the 1964 dictatorship and the exposure of its violence, businessmen from the agricultural sector thirsty for environmental deregulation, representatives of the arms industry, businessmen who bet on the withdrawal of labor guarantees and a close family clan to militiamen, the government showed, from the beginning, lack of preparation and disrespect for democracy. In the year and a half since it began, it has become clear that it would seek to advance its rule through successive institutional crises, with attacks and threats to the National Congress and the Federal Supreme Court. These were derisively staged by an extreme right-wing armed group that set up camp in Brasilia and by demonstrators who had the presence of the president and ministers in protests that advocated military intervention.

This is the scenario in which the Brazilian government despised Covid-19. In attitudes that add to the previous rejection of human rights and science, the president trivialized the pandemic and people's pain, disregarded the alternatives to face them and contributed to misinformation. Symbolically, on June 2, when the country surpassed 30 deaths, registering 1262 in 24 hours, he spoke out saying that “dying is normal”. On June 6, the government adopted practices that made access to data difficult (returning after pressure). Shortly afterwards, on June 11, in a live broadcast directed at supporters, Bolsonaro encouraged the invasion of field hospitals, always reinforcing mistrust in the reality of the pandemic and its health effects.

But these are not individual outbursts. We are talking about a death policy that was assumed as a government guideline. Two health ministers were replaced during the pandemic and the portfolio currently has an interim minister, who has a military career and has no prior experience in the area. The president, who has repeatedly positioned himself against social isolation and in favor of drugs with no proven effect, refused to play a coordinating role and increased conflicts with governors. It was necessary for the Federal Supreme Court to manifest itself to reaffirm the normative and administrative competence of states and municipalities, preventing the Federal Government from creating obstacles to state policies to contain the pandemic.

For a government that adheres to a smooth neoliberalism and takes inequalities as the norm, it has been difficult to take a step towards public accountability for economic vulnerability. At the beginning of April, a Provisional Measure (936) was published that allows for the reduction of working hours and wages, with the aim of reducing dismissals. It was also at this time, after much pressure, that a monthly aid of 600 reais (about 111 dollars) was launched for informal and low-income workers, with a duration of three months – the benefit began to be paid on April 7 and, As of June 9, there were still 10,4 million claims awaiting review, according to the government bank responsible for payments. When I finish this article, there is only speculation about the extension of the aid for another three months, with reduced values, and Brazil has an official unemployment rate of 12,6% - which would reach, according to calculations released this week by economists, the 16 % if considering the difficulties to look for a job at the moment.

The Brazilian tragedy has several components. Neoliberalism, authoritarianism, low capacity for political leadership, rejection of science and an open contempt for life compound the absence of adequate responses to the effects of the pandemic. Health and economic insecurities are experienced in a context in which attacks on democracy are manifested more and more openly [1].

Flavia Biroli is a professor at the Institute of Political Science at UnB. She is the author, among other books, of Gender and Inequalities: Limits of Democracy in Brazil (Boitempo).

Published in Bulletin Social scientists and the coronavirus from Anpocs.



[1] Article written for Latin America 21. Published in newspapers Clarín, on 30/06/2020 and Folha de S. Paul, on 03/07/2020.


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