Populist Virus

6 Feb 2021

Is President Jair Bolsonaro’s inadequate response to the COVID19 pandemic, with its resulting horrendous loss of Brazilian lives, a symptom of a much bigger Brazilian virus? 

A virus that has been contaminating Brazilian politics and its social fabric for decades.  The result being an erosion of trust, a belief that everyone is out for themselves, a breakdown of social cohesion, the net effect being the rise of populism.  A wave that Bolsonaro has ridden.

How did an ex-military, far right populist politician with extremist views manage to win the 2018 election in Brazil?

Since his election, Bolsonaro has seemingly actioned a strategy to create a culture of ‘denialism’ across all levels of Brazilian politics and society, a similar approach used by his friend and apparent role model, former US President, Donald J. Trump.  This denialism giving license to deny and set a ‘false truth’, which suits a politician’s own agenda.  In the early 2000’s, the term ‘spin doctor’ was common.  Politicians like Bolsonaro, Trump and many of their followers have taken that term to a new level.  No longer spinning a truth to reflect a different viewpoint, but now actively denying the truth and instead instilling a falsehood.

The start of the social and political virus can be seen in earlier times.  Matias Spektor, Associate Professor and Founder of the School of International Relations at FGV, Fundação Getulio Vargas, believes that perhaps, due to the high incidence of violence that started to rapidly increase in Brazil in 2017, reaching 64,000 homicides that year alone, combined with the lack of belief in a political system that continuously failed to provide good governance, incessant corruption scandals, high degree of inequality, as well as the fact that a newcomer who spoke a language that was reminiscent to a language spoken during the dictatorship (1964-1985) claiming he would end endemic corruption, loosen gun laws, give police force autonomy in order to fight violence, made him an ideal candidate for president at the time. He also mentioned that Bolsonaro may not be the cause of democracy decay in Brazil, but rather a symptom.

Perhaps the very populism that put Bolsonaro in to office in 2018, will be the force that removes him.  The very visible and real effects of the COVID 19 virus may actually cause the end of one strain of the social and political virus that has permeated Brazil for decades.

We can’t forget that 225,000 (as of February 2) Brazilians have lost their lives to Covid-19 so far, the second highest number of deaths in the world, and the numbers keep rising.

Brazil has been facing many crises due to the pandemic and a new covid-19 variant, initially detected in Manaus, and spreading ferociously across the country. Brazilians have a negligent president as a leader, who has constantly refused to take adequate measures in order to contain the spread of covid-19 and protect its population from further unnecessary deaths.

In the past few weeks, across many Brazilian states and across the world, Brazilians have gone out in the streets protesting against Bolsonaro’s leadership and requesting for his impeachment. Bolsonaro and his government may also face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court for the way they handled the pandemic.

Recently, 63 requests for impeachment of the president were presented to Rodrigo Maia, speaker of the Chamber of Deputies, but unfortunately, on February 1, Maia’s last day in office, he took the decision and refused to open an impeachment case against Jair Bolsonaro. Maia was replaced by Arthur Lira, who is one of Bolsonaro’s allies. Lira faces charges of taking bribes in the Car Wash scandal and other probes.

“Jair Bolsonaro has gone beyond all limits and is in no condition to continue governing the destiny of more than 200 million Brazilians. In addition to committing crimes of responsibility since the first day he stepped in the Planalto Palace, the president acts irresponsibly and criminally during the coronavirus crisis “, explains Congresswoman Fernanda Melchionna on her official website and who was present in the impeachment request protocol in the Chamber.

A recent study and investigation by NGO Conectas Derechos Humanos and São Paulo University (USP), obtained by Spanish newspaper EL PAÍS, accuse Jair Bolsonaro of allowing Covid-19 to spread freely across Brazil.

“Our research has revealed the existence of an institutional strategy to spread the virus, promoted by the Brazilian government under the leadership of the President of the Republic.”

According to Luiz Henrique Mandetta, doctor and former health minister, who was dismissed by Bolsonaro in March last year due to a disagreement over the use of chloroquine and action guided by the World Health Organisation’s advice, this new variant could trigger a mega-pandemic in Brazil over the next two months.

“We had a new disease and a system with old problems. I had to protect this system and reorganise within a government environment extremely hostile to any reorganisation initiative,” said Mandetta, recalling that he chose to have direct communication with the population. “As there was no government campaign and the president did the opposite, I started to communicate with society so that it could build a line of defense”, he commented on his disagreements with Jair Bolsonaro.

During an interview at Manhattan Connection in January 27, Mandetta spoke about the five critical crises Brazil has been going through in the last year.

Mandetta mentioned that the first crisis took place when Bolsonaro decided to sabotage the prevention system. He dismissed the danger of covid-19 and called it “the sniffles”. Bolsonaro was firmly against the use of masks and social distancing measures. His refusal to act in order to contain the spread of the virus was an indication of his advocacy to herd immunity. “This is a neurosis. 70% of the population will catch the virus. There is nothing I can do. It’s madness”. Bolsonaro said in May last year.

The second crisis arose when Bolsonaro decided to ally with former US President, Donald Trump, and together they created a narrative with the exact same speech, defending the use of chloroquine, contaminating the treatment policy and undermining preventative measures. Bolsonaro mentions the use of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for covid-19. His government was betting on the use of this drug to diminish the pandemic in the country, instead of establishing an adequate vaccination strategy.

“I have been talking about the use of hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of covid-19 for 40 days. The use of chloroquine is increasingly found to be effective”, said Bolsonaro outside Planalto Palace last April. Last October, he insisted on the issue saying “In Brazil, if you take chloroquine at the onset of the symptoms, you have 100% cure”.

Mandetta articulated that the lack of a testing system was Brazil’s third crisis. At the end of November, the newspaper “O Estado de S. Paulo” revealed that 7.1 million tests are in the ministry’s warehouse, that is, they were not sent to SUS (Brazil’s health care system) in the middle of a pandemic. Of the total stockpiled, 96% (about 6.86 million units) expired between December 2020 and January 2021.

The fourth crisis hit Brazil when Bolsonaro decided to turn his back on a key solution, a vaccination strategy, joining the anti-vaccine movement. Brazil’s vaccination program has not been short of mishaps and confusion, leaving its population lost and in despair.

Bolsonaro’s government failed to set up an efficient vaccination program, even with the fact that Brazil has a long history of successful vaccination campaigns and its state funded facilities are able to produce and distribute vaccines on a large scale.

According to Pfizer, Bolsonaro’s government missed the opportunity to order 70 million doses of the vaccine back in August with delivery in December 2020.

Astra Zeneca was Brazil’s main choice for its vaccination program. On June 27 2020, Brazil signed and agreement to start manufacturing the 30 million doses of the vaccine locally, by Fiocruz Institute. On August 31, Bolsonaro’s government signed another agreement with Astra Zeneca, this time to produce 100 million doses of the vaccine. On January 22, 2021, Astra Zeneca sent Brazil 2 million doses of the vaccine, sourced in India, as an emergency use.

Fiocruz and Butantan Institutes were expected to manufacture the Pfizer and Sinovac vaccines respectively, but due to lack of the active ingredients needed to make the vaccines, the project has been delayed until February/March 2021. This delay may have been the result of Bolsonaro’s open criticism to China.

On January 17, the National Health Surveillance Agency, Anvisa, authorised the emergency use of both the CoronaVac (developed by Chinese Sinovac in partnership with Butantan Institute) and the Astra Zeneca vaccines in Brazil. CoronaVac was the first covid vaccine shot administered in Brazil in January 17.

In less than one year, Brazil had three health ministers. Luiz Henrique Mandetta, doctor and politician, who trusted WHO guidelines and against the use of chloroquine, was dismissed by Bolsonaro. Nelson Teich, oncologist and health consultant, was appointed to Health Minister soon after his Mandetta’s departure. Teich was in power for less than one month and resigned in May 2020 due to a disagreement with Bolsonaro on topics such as the use of chloroquine and isolation measures.

Eduardo Pazuello, former Army General and no previous health experience, was appointed to health minister. At this point, it was clear that Bolsonaro’s government switched their vaccination strategy, betting on the use of hydroxychloroquine alone to fight Covid-19.

Bolsonaro announced publicly he would not take the vaccine himself and started a misinformation campaign about the vaccine’s terrible side effects.

“At Pfizer, it is very clear in the contract: we are not responsible for any side effects. If you become a chipanz … if you become an alligator, it’s your problem. I’m not going to talk about another animal here, not to mention bullshit. If you become Superman, if a beard is born in a woman or a man starts talking thinly, they have nothing to do with it. Or even worse, tampering with people’s immune systems. How can you compel someone to get a vaccine that has not completed its third trials yet?, said Bolsonaro in December last year.

As of February 1, Brazil vaccinated 2,051.29 million people, approximately 0.5% of the population.

According to Manddetta, the fifth crisis may be about to explode with the new covid variant from Manaus spreading across all states, which may create a “mega-epidemic”.

The recent events of Manaus, where people died asphyxiated due to lack of oxygen supplies and the collapse of the health system, could be replicated across the entire country.  The Ministry of Health pressured the Health Secretariat of Manaus to use anti-viral medications early in the treatment of Covid-19, such as chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, azithromycin, nitazoxanide, corticoid, zinc, vitamins, anticoagulant, rectal ozone and chlorine dioxide.

“Ladies, gentlemen, there is no other way out: we are no longer discussing whether this professional agrees or not. The federal and regional councils have already positioned themselves, the councils are in favor of early treatment, of clinical diagnosis”, said Pazuello during an interview in Manaus on January 11.

“The treatment must be immediate and the drugs must be made available immediately. The patient needs to take the medication and be accompanied by a doctor, no doubt about it ”, added Pazuello.

There is no question and it is clear that Bolsonaro and his government have failed Brazilians at so many levels, by lack of planning and action, as well as employing a denialism approach to a lethal and highly transmissible virus, which was left to spread freely through the entire population. Bolsonaro and his administration should carry the burden and consequences already visible and felt by most Brazilians. Unfortunately, the man hangs on to his position as fiercely as he can, without any signs of remorse. His decision to sacrifice life over the economy is unacceptable for most and may haunt him for many years to come.

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