In December of 2019, COVID-19 seemed like a regional disease, confined to China. While clearly devastating for the Chinese population, very few people were aware of the future of the pandemic and the startling reality of what was to come. The pandemic has spread across the world and continues to have staggering effects on citizens and economies of both developing and developed states. While the disease initially reached its highest peaks in Italy and Spain, both developed states with capable healthcare systems, it has since spread rapidly through countries with healthcare systems unable to cope with even low levels of infection. One of the most pertinent examples of a state struggling to support its citizens during this pandemic is Brazil.
As of July 20, Brazil officially has the second highest rate of COVID-19 infections after the United States. They have surpassed 79,000 deaths and have over 2.1 million cases. In addition to the pandemic, Brazil continues to struggle with political instability, a right-wing controversial leader in their President Jair Bolsonaro, and a weakened economy. Four of the main sectors that have been most seriously affected by this pandemic are support for Bolsonaro, the healthcare sector, quality of life for indigenous people, and the Brazilian economy.
Jair Bolsonaro has faced serious scrutiny due to his handling of the pandemic. Elected in 2019, Bolsonaro situated himself as an “outsider” in the political world, providing an alternative to the many politicians brought down by the famed “Car Wash scandal.” He is a staunch opponent of abortion, LGBTQ+ rights, and environmental protections; and a supporter of military power and deforestation of the Amazon for corporate use.
Prior to COVID-19, Bolsonaro was losing support due to failing in his image as an incorruptible leader. In late April, he removed the head of federal police, and was accused of appointing someone more willing to pass along confidential information. This led to his Justice Minister Sergio Moro resigning, who was quick to voice his distaste for the president. Moro’s resignation immediately sparked controversy in Brazil and his popularity began to decline.
Potential corruption compounded with Bolsonaro’s brash handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. On May 9, the president arrived at a supporter-led cookout on a jet-ski with a large smile, while referring to the pandemic as “madness” and a “measly cold.” The leader has taken a complete denialist view of the disease, threatening to use the military to wage “war” against governors who try to lock down their regions for distancing purposes. He is widely viewed as “co-responsible for many COVID deaths” and many Brazilian leaders are vocal about their anger over his handling of the pandemic. Virgílio Neto, the mayor of Manaus, whose city was overrun by COVID-19 in April says the president has “pushed many people to their deaths.” One of the most telling statistics is Bolsonaro’s approval rating has fallen nine points since January, to below 40%. The dislike has gone as far as a movement to impeach the president, with Brazilians banging pots out their windows each night to show their desire for a change of leadership.
Many people have compared Bolsonaro’s lack of action during this time to U.S. President Donald Trump, but while Trump leads a developed economy with a robust healthcare system, Brazil has one of the world’s highest rates of healthcare inequality. In 2017, the national healthcare budget was slashed $4.4 billion, leaving many citizens without access to care. While unpredictable, this pandemic has been detrimental for an already struggling health system. The disease has spread rapidly from coastal cities to interior populations, which hold the country’s poorest citizens, many of whom live in favelas or indigenous communities. These people live very close together and are often isolated from care and testing.
Nurses treating COVID-19 in Brazil are dying at almost 100 a month, the highest rate in the world. Despite medical workers putting their own lives at risk, many patients cannot be saved due to lack of ventilators and hospital space. Patients often have to wait several weeks in a non-ICU ward for treatment, and many do not survive the waiting period. In São Paulo, 90% of ICU beds filled up almost immediately in April, and in the state of Pernambuco, a shortage of ventilators forced doctors to choose not to treat many cases.
Humanitarian non-governmental organization Doctors Without Borders has launched a COVID-19 emergency response, but continues to face complications gaining access to indigenous populations living in the Amazon region. There are almost 900,000 indigenous people in Brazil, many of whom are marginalized in society. These people have minimal access to treatment and PPE, often having to travel to seek medical care. This outcome is not surprising as the “health system is plagued with structural inequalities and exclusion from care for huge numbers …and for regions such as Amazonia that have been starved of proper health investment for decades.”
Due to the state’s stagnant progress in providing support, indigenous communities have been forced to implement their own strategies for battling COVID-19. There have been attempts to set up hand washing stations and closing borders, but there is still fear this pandemic will become “one more genocide” for Native communities.
A major concern for these communities is the continued presence of outsiders, particularly those who work for oil, mining, or logging companies. Indigenous leaders have attempted to petition for their work to halt during the pandemic, but have had little success.
Beyond the loss of life, the impact of COVID-19 on the Brazilian economy has also been devastating. This year the economy is expected to contract 4.7%, the largest fall since 1900. In March, the government announced it would pay $40 a month for three months to informal and low-income workers, but some experts predict these payments will not be enough to support citizens during this time and could lead to a hunger crisis. The majority of workers cannot work from home and are making no income during the pandemic. Unlike developed economies like the U.S., Brazil does not have a safety net for its economy in times of hardship.
Brazilian society and government have the potential to see many changes during and following COVID-19. Citizens are calling for expanded access to healthcare, further economic support, and new leadership. Based on the detrimental impact the pandemic has had thus far, timely reactions by the government and other non-governmental organizations are imperative to gaining stability in Brazil.