Brazil’s coronavirus nightmare

Ignorant and incompetent leadership has left Brazil crippled by COVID-19

Photo by: Isac Nóbrega/PR.

— 4 minute read — By Sam Feierabend

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed the leadership qualities of many world leaders. Some have been praised for their handling of the pandemic, such as Jacinda Arden’s response to the crisis in New Zealand, acting swiftly and effectively to limit the effects of the virus. On the other hand, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have come under mass media scrutiny for the inability to lock down their respective countries correctly and sufficiently. Yet no leader has shown more ignorance towards the pandemic than Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

By mid-August, Brazil was second only to the United States in highest number of confirmed cases at 3.35 million and also became just the second country to surpass 100,000 COVID-19 related deaths. Whilst the South American country became affected at a later stage than many in Europe (first confirmed case was 25th February), cases increased exponentially to a peak of 70,869 recorded on 29th July. National and international media were quick to blame President Bolsonaro’s attitude towards the pandemic as the catalyst as to why Brazil had been so badly affected by the virus and his own personal background shows he has never been far from controversy.

Bolsonaro spent most of his professional career as an army general and was elected as President of Brazil in January 2019 as a member of the Social Liberal Party. However, he has since cut ties with the party, being described as a “far right and populist leader” with strong views on opposing gay rights, same sex marriage and abortion. He has been also vocal in his support for the Trump regime and has close connections with the Israeli government.

In an initial response to the virus, Bolsonaro described it as “a little flu or a bit of a cold” and blamed the world’s media for scare-mongering the public by exaggerating the severity of the virus. He was criticised in March attending a rally in the capital city of Brasilia with no mask or personal protective equipment despite his press secretary contracting coronavirus just days before. By the end of March, polling suggested that 45 percent of Brazilian voters were in favour of impeaching their President. Little had been done to mitigate the spread of the virus apart from a mandatory seven-day isolation for any travellers coming into Brazil and a closure of the border with Venezuela due to their collapsing health system.

Yet Bolsonaro refused to accept the severity of what he was facing. When challenged on his lack of action to contain the spread of the virus he instead made a speech attacking what he called “scorched earth policies” from other developed nations such as closing schools nationwide. In Brazil, schools only fully shut when there were confirmed cases within. Journalist Ricardo Noblat described the speech as “the first political suicide broadcast live on radio and television” firmly showing the lack of faith shown in the President throughout the country.

Perhaps most worrying however has been Bolsonaro’s dictator-like approach to dealing with health advise from ministers. Whilst the majority of governments are co-operating with their health departments to work out the appropriate response to the pandemic, Brazil have had three Health Ministers since April. Luiz Henrique Mandetta clashed with the Prime Minister over the policy of social distancing with Mandetta advising that Brazil enforce a two-metre rule to combat the spread of the virus. Bolsonaro disagreed and replaced Mandetta with Nelson Teich (someone who also did not favour social distancing) but he was only in the position for a month, until mid-May with arguments over whether to use hydroxychloroquine as a treatment to the virus; something that has been deemed as highly dangerous by the WHO. To replace Teich, General Eduardo Pazuello was appointed as the new health minister. Significantly, Pazuello served with Bolsonaro in the army and has no experience in public health.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed Jair Bolsonaro’s leadership on a global scale. With unemployment in Brazil hitting 13.3 percent in mid-August, it seems that the affects of the virus may last far into the future for the Brazilian public. Dr Jose Javi Urbaez (senior member of the Infectious Diseases Society) summed up Brazil’s situation as “a tragedy like a world war” and going into September, it appears that due to Bolsonaro’s ignorance, South America is now the epicentre of the pandemic, a reputation for which Brazil must take the lion’s share of the blame.