Bolsonaro’s COVID-19 denial will devastate vulnerable Brazilians

Brazil’s president has tried to downplay the threat from coronavirus, but it is poor Brazilians who will pay the price.

Brazil''s President Jair Bolsonaro is pictured with his protective face mask at a press statement during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Brasilia
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro in Brasilia, Brazil, on March 20, 2020 [REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino]

Brazil has become one of the centres of South America’s growing coronavirus crisis with more than 2,000 confirmed infections and dozens of deaths. The country of 210 million, however, is not even remotely ready to respond to this unprecedented public health emergency.

The federal government led by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has been trying to downplay the severity of the threat facing the country ever since experts around the world first sounded the alarm about the highly contagious virus in early January. 

So far, the president has claimed that the disease is just “a fantasy” and “a little flu”, accused the media of fuelling hysteria by reporting on the death toll in Italy, encouraged – and even attended – a series of pro-government street demonstrations across the country and supported religious leaders who refused to close down churches and evangelical temples in response to the pandemic. 

When it was revealed that at least 23 members of his entourage have been infected with the virus, he not only refused to remain in isolation, but made a point of shaking hands with his supporters and taking selfies with their mobile phones. The president later claimed that he tested negative for the virus, but refused to make the results of the diagnostic test public. 

Brazil has a highly developed public health system, known as SUS, that is at the service of all Brazilians. However, repeated cuts to its budget have dilapidated the system over the years. As experts warned about a huge shortage of intensive care beds and other equipment necessary to tackle the pandemic, Bolsonaro’s Health Minister Luis Henrique Mandetta recently admitted that the country’s health system would likely enter a state of collapse by the end of April because of the coronavirus pandemic.

As it became clear that Bolsonaro is more interested in protecting Brazil’s long-ailing economy, and his political future than addressing the looming crisis, governors of several Brazilian states decided to take the matter into their own hands. 

Some states, including Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, declared emergencies, banned flights, built field hospitals and even imposed strict measures to restrict the movement of their citizens against the wishes of the federal government. 

Bolsonaro responded to these measures with fury, declaring in a televised interview on March 22 that “the people will soon see that they were tricked by these governors and by the large part of the media when it comes to coronavirus”.

Brazilian public, however, appears to be largely on the side of the governors. 

Approval of Bolsonaro’s government fell to a record low following the coronavirus outbreak, according to an XP Investimentos poll released on March 20. Just 30 percent of those surveyed rated the federal government “good” or “great”, compared with 36 percent calling it “bad” or “awful”.

Moreover, thousands of Brazilians embarked on a pot-banging protest, known locally as “panelacosdemanding Bolsonaro’s resignation. 

Favelas prepare for the worst

Despite the state governments’ efforts to prepare for the peak of the outbreak, and thanks to the federal government’s reluctance to take comprehensive action, the coronavirus pandemic is likely to cause unprecedented devastation in Brazil, with the poorest and most vulnerable members of society suffering the most.  

With narrow streets, poor rubbish collection, overcrowding and little ventilation, the country’s various favelas offer the perfect environment for the spread of the virus. Millions of people living in these makeshift cities, who do not have the luxury to practise social distancing or self-isolation, are sitting ducks for COVID-19. Some communities living in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas are having problems accessing running water, and as a result are unable to adhere to the hygiene protocols recommended by medical professionals to curb the spread of the virus. 

Moreover, most residents of these favelas do not have job security or savings, so they continue to go to work using public transport on a daily basis despite the high risk of infection. They are also facing the risk of losing their jobs and falling into further destitution as a result of the economic crisis the pandemic is expected to trigger. There has already been a series of coronavirus-related dismissals and experts believe five million jobs may be lost in the trade sector by April.

As authorities appear uninterested in their plight, residents of favelas across the country organised themselves to fight the pandemic. Residents of the Complexo do Alemão, a group of favelas in the north zone of Rio de Janerio, for example, set up a “crisis cabinet” to try to contain the virus. The residents of the Complexo da Mare, another favela in the north of Rio de Janerio, meanwhile, started an awareness campaign through their independent media collective, Mare Vive.

Despite these efforts, however, the virus already reached many of Brazil’s favelas, including Cidade de Deus, the favela that gives its name to the famous 2002 film City of God. Two cases of COVID-19 were also registered in the Complexo da Mare.

The poorest will suffer the most

In addition to favela residents, tens of thousands of homeless people who are trying to survive on Brazil’s streets are also facing an increased threat from the coronavirus. For these people, who often make a living by collecting rubbish and selling it to recycling facilities, washing hands, using hand sanitisers or practising social distancing is an impossibility. The Brazilian authorities have discussed several initiatives to help this most vulnerable group during the pandemic, such as using Rio de Janeiro’s Sambodrome as temporary shelter for the homeless or opening hotel rooms for their use, but so far no action has been taken to protect them.

Another extremely vulnerable group is “informal workers”. Without a fixed job, often making a living by selling food or trinkets on the streets or by offering delivery and transport services through mobile apps such as Uber, these workers are already facing financial difficulties. They are likely to lose their income as city after city goes into lockdown to stop the spread of the virus. The government announced that it will give $40 a month, for three months, to informal workers who lost part of their income due to the economic slowdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. This minuscule amount is of course not going to be enough for many to feed their families or keep a roof over their heads in the coming months. 

In a televised address on Tuesday, Bolsonaro claimed that the social isolation measures decreed by several state governments are unnecessary and even harmful to Brazil’s economy. Instead, in opposition to the recommendations of both the World Health Organization and his own health minister, he suggested that only  people who are at risk for severe illness be isolated. His speech caused revolt and there are already talks about the possibility of impeaching the president.

As Bolsonaro continues to act as if his country is not facing one of the most significant threats in its recent history, and focuses his energy on countering the efforts of local governments, Brazil is losing the little time it has left to prepare for the worst of this crisis. 

If the president does not make a U-turn soon and start guiding his country through this, many vulnerable Brazilians will lose their lives unnecessarily.

The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.