A one-two punch of rising coronavirus infection rates and a political implosion in Brazil are threatening to overwhelm the already overwhelmed health system and create the “biggest humanitarian tragedy” ever seen in the nation of nearly 210 million, clinical researchers warned Tuesday.
Populist President Jair Bolsonaro, who has consistently played down the threat posed by COVID-19 and stressed the importance of protecting the economy, is feuding with state governors over proper mitigation measures and has been rocked by high-profile defections in his own Cabinet.
Public health experts fear Latin America’s biggest country is emerging as the next global hot spot for the coronavirus outbreak as the number of cases surpassed 67,000 and deaths totaled around 4,600 Tuesday.
Brazilian clinical researcher Dr. Margareth Dalcolmo told a Washington videoconference organized by the Wilson Center’s Brazil Institute Tuesday that it was “crystal clear” early on that Brazil did not have the necessary resources to combat a crisis of this magnitude. In an effort to combat the virus, physicians and researchers are now working together with private enterprises and banks to raise funds for protective equipment and tests.
“We didn’t do our homework properly,” Dr. Dalcolmo, a professor of respiratory medicine at Fundacao Oswaldo Cruz, said. “We didn’t do it. Why? Because we knew the response that would be needed…But this mess, created by this ambivalence [between state and federal governments], the outcome is for me is the biggest humanitarian tragedy we have ever seen in Brazil.”
While U.S. states and European countries have instituted strict mitigation measures, Mr. Bolsonaro has said the coronavirus is simply a “tiny flu,” and that sharp restrictions and lockdowns are unnecessary would only hurt Brazil’s suffering economy.
State governors and health officials across Brazil have instituted lockdowns and isolation orders, but critics say Mr. Bolsonaro’s skepticism has undercut popular support for harsh measures. Brazil’s regional rivals — including Argentina, which this week all commercial flights to the country through September 1 — have far outstripped Brasilia in their containment programs.
“Brazil has always related and compared itself to the United States and Europe, but it is certainly behaving in this crisis much less seriously than our [regional] neighbors,” Miguel Lago, executive director of the Institute for Health Policy Studies said during the telebriefing Tuesday.
Earlier this month, Mr. Bolsonaro’s decision to fire his popular health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, after the two disagreed on the nation’s coronavirus response sparked a strong popular backlash. In an act of protest, residents in major cities leaned out their windows banging pots and pans.
With a presidential election in 2022, Brazil watchers say Mr. Bolsonaro could face a difficult path to reelection due to the coronavirus disruptions and the instability in Brasilia.
Last week, Justice and Public Security Minister Sergio Moro — who earned a reputation as the country’s top corruption fighter — quit after clashing with the president over policy and personnel decisions that Mr. Moro said amounted to an attempt to interfere with the justice system. On Monday, the Supreme Court of Brazil ordered an investigation into these allegations against the president, a move that experts say could inch the federal government closer to an impeachment clash.
Mr. Bolsonaro on Monday appointed Andre Mendonca, an evangelical pastor who has served as attorney general since 2019, to replace Mr. Moro, and Alexandre Ramagem to serve as director general of the federal police.
“Bolsonaro will have to fight on multiple fronts [in the upcoming election],” Sergio Fausto, executive director of the Fundacao Fernando Henrique Cardoso ,said Tuesday. “He will have to face the consequences of the pandemic [in Brazil] … and he will have to face the consequences of his actions as president of the republic.”
Researchers say Brazil is still “weeks behind” the United States and European countries in dealing with the coronavirus spread, still riding the “steep side” of the infection curve.
Mr. Bolsonaro’s concern to preserve the economy may also fall victim to his uncertain policies on the coronavirus pandemic, said Monica de Bolle, a fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The IMF is already forecasting a 5.3% drop in GDP this year, the biggest fall in more than a century.
“There is no way to separate the public health problem from the economic problem — they’re intertwined, and they should be treated like that,” she said.