Health Policy

Brazilian pandemic politics “for the world to see”

By - World Healthcare Journal

Brazilian pandemic politics “for the world to see”

Brazil should serve as a warning to other world leaders that it will take more than an inquiry to save anti-science administrations.

There is an old tradition in Brazilian law-making, the idea that something is actioned “para o inglês ver” (for the English [foreigners] to see). Essentially, these are policies which look and sound good, but never go anywhere.

Right now, with tens of thousands marching in the streets of 200 Brazilian cities, national institutions near “mutiny” and a calamitous death toll, perhaps there is another use for this phrase. Perhaps there are lessons “for the English to see” in how nationalist sentiments dismantle domestic and international standing, and a resentment for expertise can be truly deadly.

Brazil, the world’s sixth most populated country, has the second-highest death toll from Covid-19 – more than 500,000 deaths – beaten only by the US. It has registered more than 17 million cases, the third-highest number in the world. Such a high number has brough the country’s health service to the point of collapse.

In an age of inquiries into how governments are handling the pandemic, we’d be wise to pay attention to the story of Brazil.

From populism to pandemic 

President Jair Bolsonaro rode a wave of popularity following the disgraceful exit of former President Dilma Rousseff and the implosion of the ruling Workers Party over mass corruption, fielding no viable candidate. With a no-nonsense, plain-speaking approach capitalising on his military background, the strategy was always likely to be built from Bolsanaro’s bullish world view.

Interestingly, during the first few months of the pandemic Bolsonaro’s popularity soared. His administration oversaw the roll-out of one of the world’s largest welfare programmes to keep people out of poverty. By the end of 2020, one million Brazilians had been lifted above the poverty line. According to the IMF, were it not for the emergency package the number of people living on less than $1.90 a day would have doubled.

Unfortunately, this came with deadly caveats. Consistently the President downplayed the danger the virus presented, describing it as a “little flu” that would be no threat to a strongman: “In my case, given my athletic history, if I were to be infected with the virus, I would not need to worry,” Bolsonaro said in March 2020.

What followed were refusals to lockdown, ensure adequate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) or oxygen, or hedge the country’s options on vaccines. At the same time, the hero worship coming from his supporter base, his apparent headstrong judgment of the virus’ threat and his Robin Hood programmes for the poor only complicated the situation further, leaving many in the dark as to what was coming.

According to PoderData, 57 per cent of the population now support Bolsonaro’s impeachment. Brazil shows how important trust in the political system is and how the tap cannot be turned on and off on a whim.

Anti-establishment rhetoric damages more than just the political class 

Perhaps the contempt for the political class held by Bolsonaro, his executives and (at first) those who made up the 55 per cent of the vote result that elected him in 2018 spilled across to scientific disciplines. For certain, a leader set to keep the economy moving at all costs would not welcome notions of locking down or social distancing. Neither would one who cut technology, science and university funding upon being elected despite promising to increase it and fired or lost two health ministers since the start of the pandemic. You reap what you sow.

Brazil is not alone in the world in this respect. Many countries have figures within and outside of government who, in hindsight, did not take the pandemic seriously, and who have either paid for it with their office or will be dragged over the coals for years to come.

What makes the case of Brazil so tragic is that future attempts to fix disastrous leadership in a national crisis through the political class is no easy task. For example, state governors who implemented lockdown measures against the wishes of the federal government were labelled as “tyrants”.

Scientists are not state governors, yet they seem to have been treated similar. Within the scientific community in Brazil there was no doubt about the danger of the virus. Researchers have highlighted the administration’s inability to follow basic tried-and-tested containment strategies, such as closing non-essential businesses and mandating mask-wearing quickly. Not that they were listened to.

Things fall apart  

The contempt toward academia and scientists warning on the dangers of denialism spilled further into Brazil’s place on the world stage. When it came to acquiring vaccine supplies, the direction Bolsonaro took was woefully handled.

Trying to explain why only 22 per cent of Brazilian adults have been fully vaccinated is difficult, merely by virtue of there being so many factors at play.

Decisions by a former health minister to only rely on British and Chinese vaccines produced in the country contradict Bolsonaro’s own apparent hostilities to receiving support from China. Steeped in the nationalist sentiments of his campaigning days, Bolsonaro categorically ruled out in October that he would buy the Chinese Coronavac vaccine – directly at odds with the Governor of São Paulo who promoted its uptake. It’s also worth mentioning, 80 per cent of vaccines in-country are Coronavac.

Recently, an executive from Pfizer alleged the company received no responses to offers to supply vaccine to Brazil last year. As details of Brazil’s inquiry were unveiled in May, Senator Renan Calheiros even alleged that Bolsonaro never wanted to buy Covid-19 vaccines, fully absorbed in a herd immunity approach.

We hear a lot of talk about ‘following the science’, ensuring leaders listen to experts. What we are seeing in Brazil goes beyond the opposite of following science

Yet the supposed strength and no-need-to-worry exterior betray real cries for help. In March, a group of the “tyrant” state governors requested “humanitarian aid” from the United Nations. At the same time, Brazil’s ambassador to the EU “begged for help” in efforts to boost medicines and vaccine acquisition in the country.

Even Bolsonaro himself joined in, albeit form a financial support point of view. When participating in a March conference for Prosul (Presidents of the Forum for the Progress of South America), Bolsonaro called upon “international financial organisations” to support their efforts to fight the pandemic. Conveniently, he did not refer to vaccines.

We hear a lot of talk about “following the science”, ensuring leaders listen to experts. What we’re seeing in Brazil goes beyond the opposite of following science. It’s declaring war on science, as if life itself is the enemy.

A country has been laid low from erratic planning and a failure to shake away the designs of a minimum state. If impeachment or a congressional inquiry will not hold such an executive to account, then the voter will. Other countries would be wise to remember that.

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