hell on earth

Marina Gusmão, Twigs and Fruits
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By ALFREDO SAAD-FILHO & FERNANDA FEIL*

A balance of Brazil's responses to the pandemic.

Brazil had one of the worst Covid-19 control policies in the world, driven by the actions of President Jair Bolsonaro. The president's policy choices have created an unparalleled tragedy in the country, with potentially catastrophic implications for the world. The death toll in Brazil has been rising relentlessly, reaching 4,25 on April 8, the highest daily death toll on Earth. As of May 20, 2021, the total number of deaths registered in the country exceeded 422 – corresponding to the second highest total in the world, behind only the US and India. The situation has deteriorated considerably since the emergence of new and more contagious variants and new strains of the virus. In the state of Amazonas alone, more than 250 genomes have already been sequenced (Iépe, 2021).

The health system has collapsed in several cities, where the supply of oxygen is scarce, ICU beds are fully occupied, all kinds of equipment and medicines are lacking, and health professionals are exhausted. Some reports show patients having to be tied down to be intubated due to lack of anesthetics. Hundreds of people died in carts, on the floor of hospitals or at home, even when their families managed to acquire the necessary oxygen tubes on the black market.

Three factors converged to create this hell on Earth. First, Brazil is one of the most unequal countries on the planet, and deep and overlapping inequalities have created intense vulnerabilities among disadvantaged segments of the population. These vulnerabilities have become deeper since the parliamentary/judicial coup that hit President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. The pandemic highlights the vicissitudes of a highly unequal society; for example, Covid-19 affects black and poor communities and the unemployed more than the rest of the population.

Second, Brazil has always suffered from acute political and institutional constraints, which have also drastically worsened since the coup. Since 2016, the two governments have sponsored a sequence of neoliberal reforms that have increased job insecurity, worsened social security, and left public services dramatically underfunded. These reforms were underpinned by Constitutional Amendment 55, which froze federal government non-financial spending in real terms for 20 years. The new fiscal regime legitimized brutal funding cuts and the cannibalization of state institutions in the name of an arbitrary fiscal rule. In the context of neoliberal reforms, the Brazilian Universal Health System (SUS) has been degraded in recent years for financial and political reasons.

Third, President Jair Bolsonaro systematically downplayed the risks of Covid-19, blocked any centrally coordinated response, and dramatically attacked mayors and governors when they tried to impose lockdowns, social distancing rules, mask wearing, or when they tried to acquire vaccines. This has inevitably led to a patchwork of rules across the country, inevitably inconsistent, which Bolsonaro has used as an argument against any form of restriction. Bolsonaro has also forced his health ministers (four in the year since the pandemic began) to focus on bogus cures (e.g. ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine), while letting the health system implode.

The only significant measure to protect the poor was initiated by left-wing parties in Congress, offering BRL 600 a month emergency aid to almost 60 million families for five months, then extended for four months in the amount of BRL 300. Bolsonaro and his finance minister, the aging (and still ineffective) former Chicago Boy Paulo Guedes, have dismissed it as excessive. The left forced a vote in Congress, and the measure passed as part of a "War Budget" exceeding constitutional restrictions. Cleverly, Bolsonaro seized the moment, and presented the income as “his” subsidy, along with other expansionist measures, including new lines of credit for small and medium-sized companies, which significantly increased his popularity. However, with the start of the new fiscal year, the income support program ended, and was only replaced in April 2021 by a much smaller subsidy of BRL 250 per month for three months, conditional on deeper neoliberal reforms by the administration. government and more tax cuts elsewhere.

Bolsonaro's behavior can be explained in two ways. First, a necropolitical approach, in which Covid-19 is taken as a fact of nature that only affects the weak and the disabled. This is factually wrong, but the politics of resentments, rivalries, conspiracies and fake news is typical of the current generation of authoritarian leaders, who often create fake news or deliberately make false statements to create conflict, divert attention from politically inconvenient issues, or block alternative policies. Second, Bolsonaro asserted that there is an inevitable choice between protecting public health through lockdowns and protecting economic activity, and that he defends the latter. However, that choice does not exist: international experience shows that the economies that have tackled the coronavirus most decisively have both the fewest deaths and the smallest contractions in economic activity (China, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam). On the other hand, those that sought to avoid lockdowns ended up suffering the highest death tolls and the worst economic contractions (Brazil, Italy, UK, US).

Bolsonaro's neglect of the pandemic has also allowed the government to launch, virtually unnoticed, a series of initiatives that have stripped labor and environmental protections, and opened up indigenous lands to agriculture and mining. The pandemic has also diverted attention from successive corruption scandals involving the president's family.

In short, Bolsonaro bears direct responsibility for the Brazilian tragedy, but this is unlikely to be due solely to his incompetence, stupidity or psychopathy, or the perversity of his supporters, although these are contributing factors. More importantly, however, the president promoted the spread of Covid-19 in order to polarize the political atmosphere to his own advantage, radicalize his supporters, and facilitate the implementation of his destructive government program. Meanwhile, the population has been left exposed to the coronavirus, the country's highest authority systematically spreads false and misleading information, and the federal government refuses to adopt effective policies to control the pandemic. The result has been a dramatic accumulation of death tolls, a brutal economic contraction, and growing social and political chaos. Meanwhile, neoliberal reforms, the dismantling of the state and the destruction of the environment remain at the top of the government's agenda.

*Alfredo Saad Filho is a professor in the Department of International Development at King's College London. Author, among other books, of Marx's value (Unicamp).

* Fernanda Feil is a doctoral candidate in economics at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF).

Version adapted by the authors of an article published on the portal The Conversation.

 

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