Brazil leads Latin America in confirmed cases of the new coronavirus disease, COVID-19, yet President Jair Bolsonaro has resisted lockdown measures, which he says would have unacceptably high economic costs. Many of Brazil’s state governors have spurned the president’s calls to reopen businesses, setting the stage for a power struggle between federal and local officials and casting uncertainty on Bolsonaro’s political future.
How bad is the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil?
On February 26, Brazil confirmed the first coronavirus case in Latin America. The virus has since spread rapidly in the country, infecting thousands of people and killing dozens.
Compounding the problem is Brazil’s stark inequality, which has given rise to a two-pronged health system. More than half of the country’s intensive care unit (ICU) beds are in private hospitals, but only one-quarter of Brazilians have private health insurance. Moreover, public health infrastructure is fragile, and experts warn that the virus could soon overtake Brazil’s densely packed urban slums.
How has Bolsonaro responded?
Bolsonaro has downplayed the pandemic, calling the virus “a little flu” and accusing the media of fearmongering. On March 15, after traveling with officials who tested positive for the virus, Bolsonaro ignored medical advice and touched hundreds of supporters at a protest. Some news outlets reported that the president himself tested positive, but he has contested this.
Bolsonaro, like his close ally U.S. President Donald J. Trump, has denounced long-term local and state shutdowns, which he calls scorched-earth policy. He says they will harm the economy and cause social unrest, and proposes instead to limit quarantines to at-risk populations such as the elderly. He has called for reopening businesses that were closed by mayors and governors, and has suggested the antimalarial drug chloroquine could be an effective treatment for the virus.
What about other federal authorities?
Bolsonaro’s administration has taken some steps to combat the virus: it closed Brazil’s borders to foreigners and unveiled more than $34 billion in stimulus measures that include deferring company taxes and increasing social welfare spending. The Health Ministry announced that it will hire five thousand additional doctors, build more ICU beds, and distribute funding and testing kits. The health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has criticized the president for not calling off public appearances, leading Bolsonaro to threaten to fire him.
Additionally, at the Bolsonaro administration’s request, Congress declared a “state of calamity,” allowing the government to spend beyond normal limits.
What’s the role of local and state leaders?
As the federal government delivers a mixed response to the pandemic—with Bolsonaro and Mandetta at odds over the threat—governors and mayors have taken the lead. The state of Sao Paulo, the epicenter of Brazil’s outbreak, canceled events and shuttered schools before instituting a fifteen-day quarantine last week. Many states and cities have closed nonessential businesses and transportation.
There are signs that, on the issue of shutdowns, Bolsonaro is increasingly politically isolated. After the governor of Rio de Janeiro State, Wilson Witzel, decided to close airports and interstate roads, Bolsonaro tried to block the shutdowns. Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court ruled in the governor’s favor. Separately, a federal judge ordered the administration to end a social media campaign encouraging Brazilians to carry on business as usual.
Most of Brazil’s state governors—including some allies of Bolsonaro—have affirmed their support for social distancing policies, in what some observers have called an insurrection against the central government. Many of the governors have also called for a basic minimum income and a yearlong suspension of payments on state debts. Some legislators have also condemned the president’s actions, and the vice president has defended quarantines.
How could the coronavirus outbreak reshape Brazil?
Expert projections are dire. One suggests that the virus could kill more than one million Brazilians if left unchecked. Even with strategies such as nationwide social distancing, the death toll could reach 627,000. Cooler temperatures—the Southern Hemisphere’s autumn began on March 20—could exacerbate the outbreak. Authorities say the country’s health system could be just weeks from collapse, at which point even those with private insurance will be unable to access care.
Brazil’s economy only recently emerged from its worst-ever recession. Analysts now say another one is likely, especially given the coronavirus-related economic slowdown in China, Brazil’s largest trading partner.
At the same time, Bolsonaro’s political future appears uncertain. Recent polling showed nearly 48 percent of Brazilians favor impeaching him, and some experts say he’s likely to face increasing political alienation as local leaders move forward without him on strict containment measures.