Sao Paulo, Brazil – Two tweets removed for “violating rules”, bombastic television appearances and a presidential social media campaign, dubbed “Brazil can’t stop” – quickly banned – illustrate far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s plan to fight the novel coronavirus: Defy international guidelines, encourage Brazilians to get back to work and continue to downplay the threat of the virus.
Like ally and US President Donald Trump, Bolsonaro has repeatedly sought to minimise the pandemic, first dismissing it as “fantasy” and then just “a little flu”.
“A Brazilian dives in the sewer and he doesn’t catch anything,” Bolsonaro told viewers of his weekly Facebook Live programme last Thursday.
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Earlier last week, he stunned viewers with a five-minute television tirade in which he attacked political rivals, blasted press “hysteria” and even mocked a beloved celebrity doctor.
“A few state and municipal authorities must abandon this scorched earth concept: the transport ban, the closing of businesses, mass confinement,” he seethed and contradicted specialists, including his own health minister, by insisting the virus “will soon pass”.
This Sunday, he toured the capital Brasilia, defying social distancing recommendations, visiting markets and shaking hands with supporters while encouraging them to continue working to keep the economy going.
“I advocate that you work, everyone works. Of course, anyone who is old stays at home,” he told a street vendor of barbequed meat.
His comments came despite recent statistics showing that the majority of Brazil’s elderly population live with family members or someone else who is not their partner.
Videos showing him questioning quarantine methods were recently removed by Twitter for violating the social media company’s new rules on contradicting public health guidance on combating COVID-19.
Bolsonaro’s messaging surrounding the pandemic makes one thing clear: He favours an “economy first” approach to tackling the crisis; calculating that the number of deaths will be less costly than the inevitable recession caused by economic shutdown.
But as the worldwide death toll climbs to more than 35,000, it is an approach that is costing him precious political capital at home among Brazil’s powerful ruling elite, while major cities in lockdown are rocked by “panelaco” – pot banging protests – most evenings. It is also a plan that is putting Brazilian lives at risk, analysts say.
Healthcare system on verge of collapse
So far, more than 4,300 cases and 140 deaths have been confirmed in Brazil, the majority in the country’s industrialised southeast, according to Johns Hopkins University, with numbers expected to rise sharply in the coming weeks.
Analysts say the death toll would only be compounded by an already overwhelmed health system as well as Brazil’s brutal levels of inequality.
“Brazil’s poorest communities lack garbage collection, suffer from water shortages, have open sewers and are very densely populated,” said Paulo Buss, global health director at Brazil’s Oswaldo Cruz Foundation. “These are perfect conditions for the virus to proliferate.”
Bolsonaro’s televised national address last Tuesday, in which he once again referred to the virus as “a little flu”, was widely condemned in Brazil, on social media and by business leaders and politicians – including long-term allies.
His “Brazil can’t stop” campaign, which recommended all but the elderly and those with pre-existing medical conditions return to work, was banned by a judge on Saturday.
“There’s no more dialogue with this man,” said Ronaldo Caiado, governor of Brazil’s midwestern state Goias in the country’s farming heartland and, until now, a solid Bolsonaro supporter.
The majority of Brazil’s 27 state governors, including Caiado, a qualified doctor, favour the World Health Organization recommended guidelines of self-isolation and closure of all non-essential service.
While increasingly isolated politically, the president maintains the support of a loyal fan base, at least for now, with recent opinion polls suggesting that a third of Brazilians thought he was doing a good or excellent job handling the coronavirus crisis.
“The turning point in popular support could come if and possibly when we see an Italy type situation, with death tolls climbing, distressing images on TV and families not being able to attend funerals,” said Oliver Stuenkel, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation in Sao Paulo.
Last week, Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta said the country’s health system would likely collapse under COVID-19 pressure by the end of April and that infections would only begin to fall by September.
“It’s going to collapse because there hasn’t been the necessary investment for it not to,” said Marcos Boulos, an infectologist and professor at the faculty of medicine at the University of Sao Paulo.
“It’s likely that in two or three weeks when we begin to hit the peak hospitals will be totally overwhelmed and resemble, or be worse in some cases, than what we’re seeing in Italy,” he told Al Jazeera.
Like the UK’s National Health Service, Brazil’s Unified Health System, is a free universal service that serves the majority of the country’s 209 million inhabitants and is considered a source of great national pride by its medical professionals.
“Very few recognise that we are the only country with more than 100 million inhabitants that dared to guarantee medical care for all, as a citizen’s right,” Drauzio Varella, Brazil’s beloved celebrity doctor who has become a target for Bolsonaro and his followers, wrote in his Folha de S Paulo newspaper column this week.
But years of underfunding and cuts by successive governments have left it underequipped to cope with the COVID-19 crisis, experts say.
According to research published by the UOL new site, 60 percent of Brazilian cities do not have access to a ventilator machine for critically ill patients.
“It’s a disease that requires highly complex treatment and equipment over a prolonged period,” said Jamal Suleiman, an infectologist at Sao Paulo’s Emilio Ribas Institute. “And our system is already at its limit.”
‘Laying the groundwork’
Experts believe that coronavirus arrived in Brazil from tourists returning from Italy, today the centre of the outbreak, sparking debates of class and privilege in one the world’s most unequal countries.
For many, such discussions were epitomised by the reported case of a Rio de Janeiro domestic maid who died from coronavirus after her employer returned home from holiday infected but did not tell her.
Bolsonaro is laying the groundwork ... Preparing to blame those that insisted on the lockdown for when the eventual recession comes.
Brazil’s unemployment stands at nearly 11 percent and estimated 38 million workers according to Brazil’s Geography and Statistics Institute are in the informal economy, the majority poor and without sufficient savings to see them through the crisis.
But Thursday night, after significant pressure, opposition legislators celebrated the approval of an emergency basic income project that awards poor, informal or unemployed workers with a $125 monthly stipend – three times the value originally proposed by Bolsonaro’s economy minister Paulo Guedes.
Meanwhile, Bolsonaro appears to be focused on who to blame down the road analysts have said.
“Bolsonaro is laying the groundwork,” said Stuenkel, the international relations professor. “Preparing to blame those that insisted on the lockdown for when the eventual recession comes.”