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Bolsonaro has turned Brazil into a global pariah

As the country nears 2,000 Covid-19 deaths per day the president is threatening the worldwide effort to contain the pandemic by continuing to favor the propagation of the virus

Eliane Brum
Protesta en Brasilia contra Bolsonaro y Pandemia por coronavirus
A protest in Brasilia against President Bolsonaro's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.Reuters

To state that Covid-19 is out of control in Brazil due to the incompetence of Jair Bolsonaro is a mistake. It is the same as describing Bolsonaro’s government as misgovernment. Bolsonaro governs and the spread of Covid-19 is, to a large extent, under his control. If Brazil is in a period of chaos, it is chaos by design. It is necessary to understand the difference to have any chance of facing up to Bolsonaro’s policy of death. If history has ever provided a similar situation, I am unaware of it. We are being subjected to an experiment, like human guinea pigs. The premise of this investigation, being developed in Bolsonaro’s laboratory of perversion, is this: what happens when, in the grip of a pandemic, a population is left exposed to the virus while the highest authority in the country gives out false information and refuses to follow health guidelines or adopt measures that could help reduce the contagion’s spread.

The result, in terms of human lives lost, we already know: Brazil surpassed 260,000 Covid-19 fatalities in the first week of March and the probability of it becoming the country with the highest number of deaths when the history of this 21st-century pandemic is written is rapidly increasing. Several nations worldwide will have immunized their entire populations in the coming months and can start to contemplate the beginning of the end of Covid-19. Meanwhile, Brazil faces a surge in cases.

World Health Organization statistics show that while the global average of Covid-19 deaths has retreated by 6%, in Brazil it has risen by 11%

During 2020 the United States and the United Kingdom were, alongside Brazil, among the worst-affected countries in the world in terms of Covid-19 cases. Now, with Donald Trump gone and Democratic President Joe Biden in the White House, the USA is moving in the opposite direction while the conservative government of Boris Johnson is setting an example with its vaccination program. Deaths in the UK are decreasing daily.

Brazil is becoming isolated amid the terror of Covid-19; a global pariah and an example of what not to do. World Health Organization statistics show that while the global average of Covid-19 deaths has retreated by 6%, in Brazil it has risen by 11%. The consequences of this are all too visible. When all is said and done there are bodies attached to this crime, at this moment in time a sufficient number to populate a medium-sized city. The average number of Covid-related deaths per day in Brazil stands at 1,300.

Another side-effect is less obvious: what we discover about ourselves as a society when we are subjected to this violence and what every individual finds out about themselves when decisions over health, instead of being prescribed by the relevant authorities, depend instead upon personal choice. This second part of the experiment has produced worrying results and could erode the social progress made over years and even decades, as has happened in the past in countries subjected to the perversion of the state.

To continue arguing that the Bolsonaro administration is incapable of managing the Covid-19 crisis is either a symptom, or bad faith. A symptom because, for a sizeable part of the population, it could be too terrifying to accept that the president has elected to allow the virus to spread. The human mind will find a path of denial to prevent a descent into despair, a kind of internal Stockholm syndrome to survive the horror of being completely at the mercy of one who wishes you harm.

Bad faith, on the other hand, is understanding what is happening but continuing to deny it because it is convenient, whatever personal interests are at stake. An investigation carried out by the São Paulo University Department of Public Health and the NGO Coalition for Human Rights has demonstrated that the Brazilian government has carried out a plan to propagate the virus. An analysis of 3,049 federal regulations shows that Bolsonaro and his ministers had – and still have – the goal of allowing as many people as possible to become infected in the shortest time possible in order to resume full economic activity.

Even in the pandemic’s most critical hour, President Bolsonaro remains true to his policy of encouraging crowds, opening up businesses and attacking the use of masks

The evidence is there, in documents signed by the president and some of his ministers. The investigation confirms what any person with an average cognitive capability can determine in the course of their daily existence, through the words and deeds of the president. The deliberate action of propagating the virus is not just a perception but a reality. What was lacking was documentation of the act, as mere perception is not enough. It has to be documented and demonstrated. And now it has been documented and this documentation has become the basis of renewed calls for impeachment and of communications with the International Criminal Court.

In an open letter, the National Council of Health Secretaries has urged the introduction of a nationwide curfew in Brazil and the closure of bars and beaches, among other measures. The council has warned that Brazil is in the grip of the worst stage of the pandemic to date and has called for a “unified and coherent” national plan of action. It has also recommended the closure of schools and a ban on public gatherings at communal events including religious services. “The lack of unified and coherent management at the national level has made it difficult to adopt and enforce qualified measures to reduce social interaction,” the council said. “It has become clear that the proposed set of measures can only be implemented by governors and mayors if a ‘National Pact for Life’ is adopted in Brazil, bringing together all branches of authority, civil society, industry representatives and the large religious and academic institutions under the explicit authorization and legislative authority of the National Congress.” It seems apparent, though, that Bolsonaro has little interest in such a union. And, as the press have reported, his subordinates, many of them four-star generals, have stated they will not enforce any such measures.

Bolsonaro denies this, because there is already a national plan of action and it is focused on the spread of the virus. This is where those who believe that Bolsonaro needs to be convinced to lead a national pact for life are mistaken. He is already carrying out a national pact, but one for death, and I am not using a metaphor. He has made several explicit and public declarations that people should stop “whining” and that, when all is said and done, “it’s normal that there are deaths,” “we’re all going to die one day” and “let’s move forward.” As a result, and even in the pandemic’s most critical hour, the president remains true to his policy of encouraging crowds, opening up businesses and attacking the use of masks.

Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro
Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro, pictured in Brasilia this week.UESLEI MARCELINO (Reuters)

In Porto Alegre, one of Bolsonaro’s supporters, Mayor Sebastião Melo, has aped his boss: “Contribute with your family, your city, your life, so that we can rescue the economy of the city of Porto Alegre.” Note that we are dealing here with a complete inversion. Throughout the course of history, authorities of every geographic type and language have called for economic sacrifice to save lives. Bolsonaro and his adherents are asking for the opposite: the sacrifice of lives – those of other people, of course – to save the economy. And even so, despite the laying down of lives supposedly in the name of the economy, in 2020 Bolsonaro’s Brazil recorded its lowest GDP in 24 years. While other countries that imposed lockdowns are now witnessing economic recovery as well, Brazil is going off the rails.

In the face of an abundance of proof of a policy of allowing the virus to spread, those who continue to support Bolsonaro in public or from the wings deserve close attention. There are many reasons for bad faith, depending on the group or the individual. One such group, that described as “the market,” still believes that Bolsonaro can continue to carry out the neoliberal “reforms” they wish him to. Another, called “agroindustry,” backs the destruction of the Amazon to increase the stock in land for speculation and the extension of the agricultural frontier. The same applies to the extraction of minerals.

With the health system showing signs of collapse the governor of São Paulo, João Doria, designated religious cults as ‘essential activities.’ To placate the pastors, who had complained publicly, gatherings in benefit of the church business are permitted

While there has been some backtracking due to the impact of deforestation in the rejection of Brazilian products in Europe, others are waiting for Bolsonaro to add further misdemeanors in this regard before withdrawing their support, whether or not this takes place in the light of day or in the shadows. Only then will they be outraged to discover Bolsonaro’s intention to water down environmental legislation and allow the predatory exploitation of indigenous lands. At some stage, these ingenuous children of the market will angrily distance themselves in discreet interviews in the liberal press, laced with economic jargon. After all, how could these innocents have imagined that Bolsonaro, so elegant and measured, was not a statesman? There are those who still have something to gain from Bolsonaro and Finance Minister Paulo Guedes and to them it doesn’t matter how many people die, as long as the funerals do not involve their families or their select circle of friends.

The same is true among some Pentecostal and neo-Pentecostal evangelical leaders, who also believe they have plenty to gain even though parts of their flock have fallen victim to Covid-19. Increasing desperation will bring new customers to offset their bad faith. As has become apparent, the shepherds of the market would prefer to hang on to their power now and through the next elections. With the health system showing signs of collapse the governor of São Paulo, João Doria, designated religious cults as “essential activities.” To placate the pastors, who had complained publicly, gatherings in benefit of the church business are permitted.

Doria’s scientific fervor, under which he consolidated himself as Bolsonaro’s principal opponent during the first year of the pandemic, has been replaced with a new slogan: “Hope, faith and prayer.” Faced with pressure from the temple merchants and their threat to withdraw support in the presidential race, life is once again on sale to the highest bidder. And so what is considered the priority continues to take center stage: the 2022 elections. By that time, there will still be enough people alive to cast their vote.

And what can be said about the politicians, with the center leading the procession of those corrupt in wallet and soul, but who are by no means alone? All of Bolsonaro’s violations have not proven sufficient for a queue of more than 70 – and growing – impeachment petitions to move forward. At the end of the day, what matters is guaranteeing the impunity of the parliamentarians themselves, something that really is an emergency for those who were elected to represent a population now dying of Covid-19.

Although the facts are known, it is necessary to recite them to understand the reality: Brazil has a president exercising a policy of death. It is not histrionic, it is not a form of expression, it is not hyperbole. It is a reality and many more Brazilians will die due to Bolsonaro’s actions. Faced with this predicament, will Brazilians allow themselves to be killed? Because that is basically the question.

Will we allow ourselves to die?

In 2021, Brazil’s capacity to weather Bolsonaro’s policy of death is considerably weaker than in 2020. This is reflected in the number of victims. On March 3, Brazil recorded the highest number of daily deaths since the beginning of the pandemic: 1,910 people. That is 1,910 fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, grandfathers and grandmothers lost; 1,910 families destroyed. And this in a country with a public health system, respected research institutions and an enviable capacity for mass vaccination.

Congress, which in the first year of the pandemic played an important role in securing an emergency relief payment of $110 a month and struck down the most monstrous of Bolsonaro’s vetoes, such as denying fresh drinking water to indigenous people, will do nothing under the current President of the Chamber of Deputies, Arthur Lira, to prevent Bolsonaro’s worst inclinations or rein in the president himself. Quite the opposite in fact. The judiciary, and in particular the Supreme Federal Court, has managed to stave off several disasters since the beginning of the health crisis but its power falls short of being able to single handedly prevent the full horror Brazil is facing. And that is without taking into account an ideological schism at the heart of the judiciary.

The market will inevitably withdraw its support at some stage if Bolsonaro causes the most powerful sectors of the business sphere to lose more money than they make, something that is already happening in several areas. But we cannot rely on the economic elites, among whom there are those who have occasionally displayed some genuine concern for the good of the country, but who today couldn’t care less about the population as a whole. The intellectual elites have shown they are not willing to do anything more than complain from the safety of their bubble, in the same way anyone can on social media. Of course there are exceptions in both arenas, but the depth of Brazil’s crisis shows that the elite are worse than was previously thought.

Those on the periphery who demand their rightful place in the center cry: “We will look after ourselves.” And it’s true. The question is, when the “ourselves” multiplies, who exactly are “we?”

The complexity of the “we” is that Bolsonaro was elected by the majority of those who went to the ballot boxes. He had already said exactly what he intended to do. And those who voted for him knew exactly who he was. And he won, which says a lot about the “we.” Despite implementing a policy of death and turning Brazil into a global pariah, the polls show that Bolsonaro continues to enjoy significant approval. If the elections were held today, he would have a very real chance of being re-elected. That also says plenty about “ourselves.”

Perhaps the most accurate summary of the drama of who “we” are came from the governor of Bahía, Rui Costa. During a live interview with Globo, he wept. Because understanding who “we” are is a difficult concept. And in the face of “ourselves,” the sense of impotency is amplified. “It’s hard to receive messages from people who ask, ‘What will become of my business? What will become of my store?’ What is more important: 48 hours of a store staying in business or human lives?” Costa asked through tears. “I would not like to have to make that kind of decision. I would like it if everyone wore a mask, even those who think they are supermen or those that think they are young. If not for themselves then for their mother, their father, their grandmother, their relatives and their neighbors. These people and these people alone have decided when the pandemic will end.”

“These people” that Costa referred to is the “we.” It is the “we” that packs the beaches, the “we” that celebrates Carnaval, the “we” that holds parties, obliging the police to risk their lives to break them up, it is the “we” that decided to have family Christmases and to meet friends at New Year because “everybody has had enough.” It is the “we” who fill the churches because our faith, which is more important than the life of our brother, requires those four walls to be made flesh. It is the “we” that think it’s clever to carry on getting drunk with our friends in bars. It is the “we” that wander around everywhere without masks. And it also the “we” who have declared that getting a vaccine is for idiots.

“We” are a mess

At this stage, people may say that “we” is not “we,” but “them:” everybody else. I would go so far as to say that if it was that simple, Bolsonaro would have already been impeached and would be under investigation by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The nature of “we” is a mess. And we have to straighten it out to tackle Bolsonaro’s policy of death.

The most perverse aspect of the implementation of Bolsonaro’s plan is precisely that it lays bare the bolsonarismo even of those who despise Bolsonaro. This is the most demonic part of the experiment to which we have all been subjected. Yes, the president’s position is kill and be killed: don’t wear a mask, join the crowds, open your business, go to work, send the kids to school, take medicines that don’t work and if you get the vaccine you’ll probably turn into an alligator. Given the guidelines in place to propagate the virus, what remains is for everyone to take decisions on an individual basis that, it is hoped, take into account first the wellbeing of other, less-protected people and second, collective wellbeing, that of the wider community.

When Costa broke down live on television, in front of millions of viewers, it was due to his incomprehension of, and impotence against, those people attacking him because they were obliged to close their businesses for 48 hours to save lives. Two days. Just two. In the United Kingdom, stores, bars, restaurants, gyms, hair salons and cinemas have been closed since November. Like many across Europe, people in the UK spent Christmas only with the people who live under the same roof. I use the example of the UK because Boris Johnson, the prime minister, is not a leftist but one of the world’s crop of right-wing populists. Even so, he adopted these measures. Britons can complain, but only from within their homes, because those are the rules and the people that make the rules during a global pandemic are the health authorities. And that’s that.

Bolsonaro also lays down the rules during this pandemic. But, as he has amply demonstrated, he has elected to propagate the virus. As a result of which, to preserve their own lives and not put everybody else at risk, people are obliged to set their own health rules. And it is in this warped reality that the “we” becomes complicated. We have to answer some very difficult questions. And what is becoming apparent on a daily basis is that eventually, and sometimes more often than not, “we” are also “them.”

We are not managing the limits well. When there is nothing or very little to lose, it is easy to impose limits. But when something that really matters is on the line, things become complicated. It is not just the financial cost, but the cost of a project, a plan, a dream, the cost of enduring anguish within the confines of four walls, the cost of loneliness, the cost of not pushing to the front of the line even if the rules allow it but ethics do not. If everyone looks inside themselves honestly, and without the need to enunciate what they see, they know very well what cost really defines for them and that they prefer not to stop doing whatever that is.

Protesta en Brasil contra Jair Bolsonaro
Women in Sao Paulo take part in a protest against Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro on March 8, International Women's Day, demanding Covid-19 vaccines and emergency aid during the pandemic.AMANDA PEROBELLI (Reuters)

The justification of “us” to ignore the rules set out by the World Health Organization is always legitimate because the assumption is that it is in the name of the greater good. The human brain is wired to seek out the highest justifications for rejecting those limits that may cause us to lose something dear. And, when confronted, we think that it is the other person who doesn’t understand the situation or who is in a more protected position for making decisions. The “we,” when we can, rarely asks if we should. The “us” always has better justifications than the “we” to do whatever they want and whatever they think is important. And occasionally it is very, very important.

But we are facing a pandemic that has caused 260,000 deaths in Brazil and more than 2.5 million worldwide. A spike in cases signifies not only further fatalities, but also new mutations of the virus that can prove resistant to existing vaccines and compromise the measures in place across the world to combat Covid-19, placing the whole of humanity at risk.

When a decision is taken during a pandemic, it should never be based on one’s own life. Only those who wish to sow death, like Bolsonaro, say that everyone has the right to do what they want because it only affects them directly. When he declared that he will not get a vaccine because it is a decision that supposedly only concerns him, Bolsonaro made this statement precisely because he is convinced of the opposite. He knows that his words will reach further than the sphere of his own life. Any decision made during a pandemic has an impact that goes beyond the life of any one individual. If that person is a president, the highest public authority, it becomes a directive for the population.

It is extremely difficult to take on the federal government, which has all the machinery of state behind it and the ability to amplify its own standpoint to encompass the entire country. It is immensely more difficult still to challenge the president of a republic in the middle of a public health crisis. Instead of following the federal rules designed to protect all Brazilians and particularly the most vulnerable – rules determined by the state – we have been obliged to seek our own recourse in healthcare decisions and, at the same time, we have been steamrollered by those of others.

There are those who simply don’t care, of course. But there are many who want to make the best decisions and genuinely believe that they are doing so, but they are not public-health specialists, they do not possess the necessary training to be so and neither are they obliged to be so. Bolsonaro has also subjected Brazilians to this experiment, one that is leaving scars on everyone and corroding relationships that were already difficult. It is also corroding a society that was already significantly divided and pulling at the fraying fabric holding it together.

By shifting responsibility to the individual, Bolsonaro has perversely made us all accomplices in his project of death. When the right of the individual not to wear a mask and to refuse a vaccine is invoked, it is maliciously saying: if everyone decides individually what they want to do and you’re complaining about it, why don’t you decide to protect yourself and everyone else? It’s that simple. And it’s diabolical because it makes it seem trivial, if such a thing is possible in a pandemic, that public healthcare decisions boil down to individual choices.

And if we decide to fight those who are killing us?

History tells us that during the civil-military dictatorship of 1964-1985, only a small minority decided to rise up against the regime. The majority of Brazilians preferred to pretend they could not hear the screams of the tortured, hundreds of them to their deaths, or of the more than 8,000 indigenous people assassinated along with the Amazon jungle. Even so, by all accounts there was a stronger and more expressive reaction than what we are witnessing or carrying out as a society now against a plan of extermination.

The process of re-democratization with all its defects, the most glaring of which is impunity for state-sponsored assassins, was capable of creating the progressive Constitution of 1988: the so-called “citizens’ constitution,” which still sustains what is left of democracy today, despite the repeated attacks of bolsonarismo. What will this debilitated, corrupt, individualistic society, unable to look itself in the mirror, be capable of creating if it can’t find it within itself to rise up against the specter of deaths that are entirely avoidable?

If we give everything up for lost, if we give ourselves up as lost, if we say it is impossible, if we admit defeat, then there is nothing left to be done except contemplate the walk to the abattoir, obedient to Bolsonaro’s policy of death, because shouting on social media doesn’t constitute the slightest disobedience toward anything. It is little more than expending energy confusing yourself about what action really is. To be us, independently of however many of us there are inside of us, we need to unite behind a common objective: to disrupt Bolsonaro’s policy of death.

In 2020, I wrote on these same pages: how can a people accustomed to dying (or accustomed to normalizing the deaths of others) prevent their own genocide? This question today, 260,000 deaths later, is much more critical than it was then. Our only chance is to do what we don’t know – to be better than we are and pressurize Congress to honor the Constitution and to impeach. And to urge the international institutions to make Bolsonaro answer for his crimes.

Every day, everyone has to join everyone else in pursuit of this common goal. And, maybe, we may find that we are capable of becoming “us,” to discover that we are capable of creating a community. The first question every morning should be: “What can we do today to prevent Bolsonaro from continuing to kill us?” And the last question at night should be: “What have we done today to prevent Bolsonaro from continuing to kill us?”

What else has to happen, what more needs to be seen and what other evidence is needed to understand that we are facing a project of extermination? First, we saw people dying in agony due to a shortage of oxygen supplies in hospitals. Then we saw people intubated and tied to stretchers to prevent them from tearing out the tubes in their pain and desperation due to a lack of painkillers. What else is needed? What horrors remain? What image do we need imprinted on our collective mind to understand what Bolsonaro is doing? We have to understand why we are letting ourselves be killed, subverting the primal instinct for survival that even the simplest life-forms possess. But we have to understand while we act, because there is no more time. The alternative is to continue looking on while Bolsonaro implements his policy of death until we won’t be able to see it any more, because we’ll all be dead as well.

Eliane Brum is a writer, journalist and documentary maker and author of the book ‘Brasil, construtor de ruínas: um olhar sobre o país, de Lula a Bolsonaro.’

Website: elianebrum.com. Email: elianebrum.coluna@gmail.com. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook: @brumelianebrum.

English version by Rob Train.

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