Brazilian President bows to pressure as death toll increases
In a surprising change of tune, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro struck a sombre tone on the coronavirus pandemic enveloping his country, paying tribute to victims of the disease in a weekly Thursday night broadcast.
It was in sharp contrast to earlier behaviour, until now, Bolsonaro had been parading around the capital Brasilia without a face mask, greeting and snapping pictures with his supporters. He got a rare public scolding this week, when a judge ordered him to wear a mask when out in public, or face a fine.
With over one million registered cases of the coronavirus and 53,830 deaths, Brazil has risen in the charts as a global hot spot for the pandemic – with the second-highest number of cases and fatalities after the United States. On Thursday he said he even may have had the disease.
Bolsonaro, who called the coronavirus a “little flu”, has come under heavy fire over his handling of the crisis and his continued denial of the growing evidence of the disease’s deadly impact on Latin America’s most populous country.
Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has openly defied the consensus among public health experts for slowing the coronavirus outbreak, criticising lockdown and social distancing orders issued by governors and mayors, saying their economic damage is far worse than COVID-19. And he has promoted unproven anti-malarial drugs to treat the disease.
And the country still has no permanent health minister. Bolsonaro fired one and another resigned over disagreements about how to slow the spread of the disease. An army general now occupies the position.
“The coronavirus pandemic in Brazil is not really being managed,” said Anya Prusa, senior associate at the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center.
“There doesn’t seem to be a cohesive national strategy and there hasn’t been one for a while,” Prusa said, “and that’s reflected in the fact that numbers keep going up.”
The true numbers are feared to be much higher.
A study conducted by Brazilian researchers and published on Thursday found that infections among Brazil’s poorest and most vulnerable neighbourhoods could be 30 times higher than the officially registered count.
Fuelling allegations that the government was trying to mask the severity of the outbreak, earlier in June, Brazil’s health ministry took down the website that reported cumulative coronavirus numbers.
Supreme Court Justice Gilmar Mendes ordered the website restored, calling it “a manoeuvre of totalitarian regimes”.Corruption allegations
Further eroding his support, Bolsonaro is also caught in an increasingly fraught power tussle with the country’s legislature, fuelled by allegations of corruption.
His justice minister Sergio Moro, a popular figure, resigned in late April accusing the president of interfering in investigations that involved two of Bolsonaro’s sons and firing the federal police chief for personal motives.
Moro’s accusations triggered investigations into Bolsonaro’s activities from Brazil’s highest court, arrests of his allies and motions in Congress to impeach him.
Although Bolsonaro has enough support in Congress to fend off the threat of impeachment, the saga has dented his popularity, with 44 percent of Brazilians saying they disapprove of the government, according to a poll published on Friday, up from 38 per cent in April.
Meanwhile, the virus shows no signs of abating. Brazil’s death toll will surpass that of the US by mid-August, according to models prepared by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
And on Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) said there are “worrying increases” of coronavirus cases in Latin America – especially in Brazil, where the true number of infections and deaths is likely much higher than reported, amid low testing rates.
“There still are relatively low tests per population, and the positivity rates for testing are still quite high overall, WHO’s top emergencies expert, Dr Mike Ryan, told an online briefing. “From that perspective, we would say that this trend is not reflective of exhaustive testing, but probably underestimating the actual number of cases.”
Under pressure from Bolsonaro and amid public fatigue after months of loosely enforced lockdown orders, state governors began lifting restrictions on commerce and other economic activity early in June, fuelling fears that cases would continue to rise before a peak in infections.
But without a coherent national strategy to confront the pandemic and without sufficient access to federal assistance, experts say state governors were largely left on their own to impose uncoordinated lockdown restrictions. Bolsonaro’s cavalier attitude towards the virus further eroded compliance with the measures by the general public.
“Among Latin American countries, Brazil is the one country with the most state capacity – especially on health and social policies,” said Miguel Lago, executive director of the Institute for Health Policy Studies.
“And yet it is the one country that did the worst job in containing the curve and is the champion of death tolls in our region,” Lago told Al Jazeera. “This is directly linked to the incompetence and short-minded political strategy that our president and his government have adopted.”
Observers say that since the coronavirus arrived in Brazil in late February, Bolsonaro never wavered from his view that keeping the country’s economy running was paramount even when he alienated his own allies – a decision that could continue to drive up fatalities, and have significant political costs.