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Brazil's Bolsonaro under pressure over coronavirus policy

March 21, 2021

Brazil recently registered 2,800 COVID-19 deaths in a single day, but President Jair Bolsonaro insists on sticking to his business-before-health approach.

Brasilien | Coronavirus | Jair Bolsonaro
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro still opposes lockdown measuresImage: Eraldo Peres/AP Photo/picture alliance

In the dead of night later this month, a German army transport plane carrying 80 ventilators will lift off from Cologne airport en route to Manaus, Brazil. The devices were desperately needed, as the health-care system in the Amazon metropolis had once again collapsed under a rush of COVID-19 patients.

Last April, not quite a year ago, the world was shocked to see images of scores of dead being buried in mass graves because Manaus' cemeteries were filled beyond capacity. This January, patients with serious COVID-19 related illnesses lacked oxygen supplies.

Brazil has been a global coronavirus hotspot for some time and the dramatic images coming from Manaus only serve to bolster that image. Still, if one looks at numbers nationwide, things don't look as bad.

According to Oxford University's statistics portal "Our World in Data," Brazil's 7-day infection incidence rate of 239 puts the country between France and Luxembourg for the week in terms of new infections.  

Brazil's COVID-19 mortality rates are also better than they seem at first glance: Seven European countries — including Germany — have higher death rates than the South American state. One reason for that may be the relative youth of Brazil's population compared to Europe.

Brazil | Coronavirus |
Brazil's infection rate has been skyrocketing, while vaccination has been criticized as disorganizedImage: Sandro Pereira/Fotoarena/imago images

Writing on the wall in Manaus

Nevertheless, Brazil has been tumbling from one negative record to the next of late. The so-called "Brazilian mutation"has seen infection rates skyrocket: The country is currently registering more than 70,000 new infections every day and daily COVID-related deaths recently surpassed 2,800, the most ever since the pandemic began — so far.

Still, it is safe to say that Brazil would likely be doing far better if the federal government in Brasilia had taken the first wave of infections in Manaus as a warning. Although the government guarantees citizens basic health care, it is not available everywhere. And Brazil was so short on doctors before the coronavirus appeared that for a time the government "leased" thousands of Cuban physicians from the communist regime in Havana.

It's not unusual for patients from rural areas of Brazil to sometimes have to drive hours, covering hundreds of miles, to have minor issues treated. At other times they are put on waiting lists. But at the moment, even the comparatively wealthy residents of well-organized cities like Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre are facing waiting lists because hospitals simply don't have enough beds.

Critics say the government in Brasilia could have avoided the situation by insisting upon nationwide prevention and protection measures. But President Jair Bolsonaro refused to even consider the idea. He scoffed at the notion of face masks as irrelevant and is repulsed by the idea of lockdown measures because they could further weaken the country's already ailing economy. Even though he is said to have recently considered getting vaccinated himself, nothing has changed about his publicly expressed view that the coronavirus is no worse than the common flu.

So rather than introduce nationwide limits or a comprehensive vaccination strategy — like so many other countries around the world have done — Bolsonaro has told Brazilians to "stop whining" and keep the economy moving. In countries like Brazil, where most citizens are hourly-wage laborers, a lockdown can have more devastating effects than an actual infection.

Bolsonaro's popularity dipping slightly

Still, Bolsonaro's supporters seem willing to follow him through any crisis. A survey conducted in mid-March by the polling outfit Datafolha found that despite 44% of Brazilians saying the government was doing a "poor" or "very poor" job, and 79% saying the coronavirus pandemic is out of control, 30% still said they thought Bolsonaro was doing a "good" or even a "very good" job.

But things looked slightly better for the president in late 2020. At the time, citizens were still impressed by the seemingly unbureaucratic distribution of funds to those in need. Overall, Bolsonaro's approval ratings have held steady since he took office two years ago.

But now the president — a political independent supported by the so-called "Centrao" center-right political alliance — is under pressure from the parliament in Brasilia.

According to Brazilian media reports, several representatives are considering throwing their support behind Lula da Silva in the country's upcoming presidential elections in the end of 2022. The socialist ex-president, who himself has a large and loyal base, stepped back onto the political stage this month after the country's Supreme Federal Court annulled a corruption conviction against him.

And the firing of Health Minister Eduardo Pazuello this week was a clear sign of the growing rift between the president and parliamentarians. Pazuello, the third health minister to be sent packing since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, gained attention through his inactivity as well as the blind obedience the army general showed to his superior.

Brazilian Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga
New Health Minister Marcelo Queiroga is unlikely to change the country's political approach fundamentally, say observersImage: Evaristo Sa/AFP

New health minister — old plan?

That inactivity led many to blame the former minister for the lack of oxygen stockpiles in Manaus, among other things. Furthermore, in December it became known that Brazil would have received several million doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine had Pazuello not rejected the offer.

The Centrao's chosen candidate for the job, cardiologist Ludhmila Hajjar, turned down the job, citing unreconcilable differences with Bolsonaro. Marcelo Quiroga, the person now appointed to replace Pazuello, is a physician who doesn't think much of using malaria medicine like hydroxychloroquine to fight the coronavirus. But neither does he believe in hard lockdowns.

Nevertheless, it remains doubtful that the shake-up at the top of the country's most important ministry will lead to any larger political shift. Journalist and former politician Thomas Traumann said in a podcast by the newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo that the shake-up is more of a sign that support among the Centrao is beginning to crumble: "The number of new coronavirus cases is brutal, the vaccination program is disorganized, the economy is doing poorly. So those in the Centrao could easily come to the conclusion that it is no longer advantageous to maintain such close ties to the administration."

Traumann says Bolsonaro will soon enter a difficult phase in his presidency, though he has shown no sign of changing course. On Thursday, the president signaled once again that he intends to thwart efforts to impose new coronavirus prevention measures by asking the Supreme Federal Court to declare limits on freedom of movement imposed by state governors illegal.

"He justified the move by saying such measures are only allowed in a "state of siege" and that is something only the president can declare," says political scientist Oliver Stuenkel of Sao Paulo's Getulio Vargas Foundation. The professor says he seriously doubts that Bolsonaro's latest gambit will be successful.     

This article has been translated from German by Jon Shelton. 

DW-Redakteur Jan D. Walter Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
Jan D. Walter Editor and reporter for national and international politics and member of DW's fact-checking team.