A Hurricane Called Covid-19

Image: Elyeser Szturm
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It is essential to think critically and courageously not only about post-crisis Brazil, but about the deeper consequences of a dystopian post-Brazil that is looming on the horizon

By Rafael R. Ioris & Antonio AR Ioris*

There's a lot to be said for Hurricane Covid-19, unless it's an unexpected crisis. In the recent past we had H1N1, SARS, seasonal flu, many other diseases and pandemics. But, it seems, although many, they had little influence on the conduct of public health around the world, immersed in the neoliberal individualist prescription over the last decades. In fact, the trend in Brazil and in other countries seriously affected by the coronavirus, such as Italy, the UK and the US, has been to turn health into a private matter and let everyone take care of themselves. Tragic irony when it comes to a disease whose prophylaxis requires joint action by the population and firm intervention by governments on behalf of society. Covid-19 is a complex problem that goes far beyond virology and medicine. It is a multifaceted issue, located at the center of market integration, which bluntly demonstrates the many and serious political, economic and scientific mistakes of a globalization focused almost exclusively on finance and on extensive production and commercialization networks, but not on collective dimension and much less in social inclusion.

The Covid-19 analogy to a hurricane is closer than it seems. As with so-called natural disasters, pandemics are tragedies that affect different groups in totally different ways. Risk is a socially constructed reality and responses to risks are directly related to the balance of power and social and spatial inequalities accumulated over time. More than a technical issue related to the spread of a new virus with a higher contagion and lethality factor than the common flu, the arrival of the coronavirus in Brazil has been shrouded by the profound political and ideological polarization that has taken over the political and social syntax of the country. country in recent years. Thus, what would have to be treated as a public health issue in a nation with serious material and human difficulties to implement policies that have proven effective in other countries (eg large-scale tests, as in Korea), comes, in practice, demonstrating itself as a new stage in the accelerated process of erosion both of the institutions of the State, as of the democratic institutionality itself, within a process that will tend to get worse in the coming weeks, with very serious consequences for thousands or millions of people.

The Crisis Parallax

As in astronomy, there is an evident parallax here regarding the vision of the same phenomenon by observers positioned in different locations. This was the case with the so-called Spanish flu, which started in the United States and was brought to Brazil by an English mail ship. Those who suffered the most were precisely the communities that lived in the marginal areas of Rio de Janeiro and in other urban centers. During the crisis, from the end of 1918, the political-economic elite and many medical authorities took a skeptical position and preferred to ignore the deaths that added up exponentially, culminating in the death of president-elect Rodrigues Alves. The fact that the current Brazilian government is totally unaware of the condition of the poor population and, for that very reason, has a finance minister incapable of formulating the simplest momentary relief strategies is unfortunately nothing new. Let us remember that in 1940, during the terrible German bombings of London, the British elite did not want to accept that the London subway was used as an air raid shelter, only giving in after much political pressure.

In the current case, despite important social isolation measures that have been implemented by several governors around the country, the fight against the expansion of Covid-19 in Brazil has been defined by two very worrying dynamics. On the one hand, the constant confrontation between the few members of the government who work with scientific data in the formulation of public policies – among them the Minister of Health, permanently threatened with dismissal, despite his previous militancy in favor of the privatization of the SUS and the destruction of the public health system. On the other hand, the resistant, perhaps even growing, narrative that the threat is not so serious, that social isolation is not necessary or that it will do more harm than the disease itself; or even that it was nothing more than an international conspiracy, led by Chinese intelligence, to put an end to the Brazilian economy (a statement that is totally lacking in logic given the enormous impact of Covid-19 in that country). This irrational and dangerous vision has been shamefully propagated by neo-Pentecostal business and religious leaders, especially through luxury motorcades around the country, which demand the end of isolation measures – under the slogan ´Brazil cannot stop!´ – process culminated in a day of fasting and prayers (as public health measures, or witchcraft) led by the President of the Republic himself on the 5th of last April.

Among the many groups and areas affected, indigenous populations appear to be even more at the center of the hurricane. These groups were already being exterminated by deliberate action by the current (dis)government, in its unconditional defense of agribusiness, mining and logging activities with incentives for environmental degradation and a large-scale decommissioning of public services. Indigenous leaders are dying in increasing numbers, while the police rightly protect the criminals; areas recognized as indigenous lands have been administered by soldiers who are completely unprepared and instructed not to do anything to guarantee service to the communities; adults and children are increasingly sick due to lack of food, water, shelter and medical care, yet the government denies them the most basic rights. These different strategies demonstrate that the federal administration has a clear plan to facilitate new rounds of ethnic annihilation that are directly related to favoring the most violent and backward economic sectors in the country, in particular agribusiness. As in the case of many other underprivileged Brazilian groups on the periphery of large cities and in areas dominated by export agribusiness, the mobilization of indigenous groups against the risks of the Covid-19 pandemic is an uphill struggle for social inclusion and political influence.

Possible Developments: Three General Tendencies

Even after seeming to have been convinced that the pandemic would indeed be a real problem and strike in the country, Bolsonaro continues to insist on the denialist discourse, more than anything provided by the government's dis-intellectual guru, the astrologer Olavo de Carvalho, who comes claiming that this is a big plot, while the official (certainly underrepresented) numbers of infections are rising rapidly. Within this context of growing ideological polarization and delegitimization of science and even the role of the State, what scenarios could be envisaged in the short and medium term?  

A first possible scenario or trend, perhaps the most likely one, is that, at the end of the most acute phase of the crisis (between six and twelve months), there is a return, or even a deepening, of the neoliberal and anti-people economic policy that has been implemented in the country over the past 5 years. As in post-2008, the dominant response to the crisis of neoliberalism would therefore be more of the same. With or without Bolsonaro, with or without Guedes, a post-crisis government, again legitimized by the control of the rhetoric and connivance of the media, could resume with even more media and business force the neoliberal platform that, after all, was what legitimized the candidacy of Bolsonaro in 2018. This process would frustrate the neo-Kenesian ambitions and recipes that in different parts of the world try to deal with neoliberal excesses, evidently without facing the fundamental issues related to the power of financial capital, glorification of private accumulation and suicidal patterns of production , consumption and waste. This scenario would obviously lead to a deepening recession, unemployment and the collapse of various economic sectors, including a large part of agribusiness, an accomplice from the outset of state neoliberalism. Such contradictions would be providentially denied, suffocated by the coordinated action of the state militias (with the Army's omission or its explicit help, as was the case during the recent intervention in Rio de Janeiro, when the army was instrumental in cleaning up many favelas in favor of of militiamen) and its consequences lightly transferred to future governments.

A second tendency, also quite likely, is the deepening of the authoritarian bias of the current government. This deepening, a kind of Tropical Leviathan 2.0, would be done by an even greater (non-legitimate) role of the Armed Forces in politics, reincarnated in the self-assigned task of maintaining law and order in order to guarantee the maintenance of the productive cycles of capital. This process would imply a greater repression of marginalized social groups, an even greater attack on the social rights that still remain and even a decrease in civil and perhaps even political freedoms (see the threat of the cancellation of the October election), and certainly an ever-increasing intelligence services and monitoring people – something that might be necessary in current conditions and would thus be promoted as acceptable or even inevitable in the post-crisis moment. The implementation of this trend could happen in different ways. Some have hinted at the coming possibility of a self-coup (à la Fujimori), with the closure of Congress and heavy censorship of the media and any opposition. It should be noted that this course is not necessary since, with or without the direct takeover of the government by military groups, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish in which sector the barracks are no longer in charge of the nation. Directly or indirectly, a militarized government, such as the current one, would be the most suitable to implement the two trends presented concomitantly, we would therefore have an increase in state repression against any and all resistance to the deepening of the neoliberal prescription that would thus be guaranteed in its implementation. Synergistically, we would see a related deepening of social inequalities and an even greater erosion of notions of citizenship.

A third trend, directly related to the deepening of the previous scenarios, would involve a chronic crisis of authority and state intervention perhaps never seen before in Brazil. We would experience an escalation of protests across the country – arising from the accelerated deterioration of living conditions, high unemployment, a fragmented economy and generalized violence – without, however, this process being able to be organized in such a way as to offer a viable alternative for social organization and policy to the country. Only a few extractive sectors directly linked to international interests would have some capacity to act, a situation that is present today in the Delta of the Niger River, in Iraq and in the Peruvian Amazon. National elites would lose influence in favor of regional elites, even more obscurantist, in alliance with evangelical fundamentalists, neo-fascist groups and militiamen in even more important positions of command than in previous scenarios. The national state would be nominally maintained and the 'Brazil' emblem would be maintained for external consumption (keeping the flag in front of the United Nations and participation in football matches, for example), but the territory would be in practice fragmented between national elites and partners international. To some extent, this scenario is already manifest today, with the growing presence of Chinese interests in the Amazon and in soybeans in the Midwest, European tourism in the Northeast and the pronounced decline of the southern states, and it would not be surprising, therefore, to deepen in the next times.

The Post-Brazil

The individualist logic and Taliban-neoliberalism disseminated in the country with a monotonous voice in recent years greatly helped the electoral viability of reactionary fascist bias in 2018. As in all denialist and fallacious discourse, especially under the cloak of Manichaean patriotism , this narrative still has the ability to attract sympathizers among different social groups, notably among the most demobilized and with a very low level of information beyond the so-called bubbles. Bolsonaro therefore represents a broader movement that has taken over the country in favor of economic fanaticism and intellectual medievalism.

Many still bet that the health crisis in the coming weeks will be something manageable by the governmental action mounted, albeit in a schizophrenic way, in the federal capital. Depending on the size of the pain of losing a loved one, the levels of support for the status quo will be greater or lesser. In any case, the current institutional crisis will tend to deepen in any future scenario, where the trends mentioned above seem to acquire an almost autonomous capacity to continue to define the anti-democratic, anti-popular and anti-nature character of the courses underway. It is essential, therefore, that we think critically and courageously not only about post-crisis Brazil, but about the deeper consequences of a dystopian Post-Brazil that is looming on the horizon.

*Rafael R. Ioris Professor of Latin American History at the University of Denver (USA)

*Antonio AR Ioris Professor at Cardiff University (USA)

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