Far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is under growing pressure as opposition mounts to his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has been widely condemned as putting the interests of big business ahead of those of public health.
Recently, leaders of opposition parties have come together to demand his resignation, describing him as “a public health problem” and “the biggest obstacle to making urgent decisions to reduce the spread of contagion, save lives and guarantee the income of families, jobs and companies.”
The fourteen signatories to the statement, including Fernando Haddad, the former presidential candidate for the Workers’ Party, Ciro Gomes, a lawyer and politician affiliated with the Democratic Labour Party, and Guilherme Boulos, a member of the Socialism and Freedom Party, are calling for a wide-ranging National Emergency Plan around which popular and democratic political forces can unite.
The initiative came a few days after Northeastern Brazil’s predominantly progressive governors had expressed their “deep indignation” at Bolsonaro’s views about the coronavirus pandemic, in particular his disdain for the WHO’s advice on social isolation to contain the virus.
Following in the footsteps of US President Trump’s widely reported early stance downplaying the risks, Bolsonaro has dismissed coronavirus as “just a little flu.” Since the outbreak he has minimised the dangers involved and mocked health experts, including his own Health Minister.
He has also suggested, without any evidence, that Brazilians may have a natural immunity to the disease. This supposed immunity didn’t stop a score of government ministers and other officials who recently travelled with Bolsonaro to meet Trump at his Mar-a-Lago resort becoming infected. According to his son, Eduardo, Bolsonaro himself tested positive – a fact at first confirmed, but later denied by him.
Unsurprisingly, Bolsonaro then ignored medical advice to self-isolate and personally greeted a large number of his supporters at a demonstration organised to put pressure on the National Congress and the Supreme Court, which have restrained some of his initiatives.
In the following days Bolsonaro launched ‘Brazil Can’t Stop,’ a campaign to promote the return to work, saying: “the best remedy for the disease is work. If someone can work, they have to go back to work… You can’t hide. It’s not okay to be quarantined at home, who knows for how many days.”
This prompted an intervention by the Prosecutor General’s Office against the messages urging Brazilians to return to “normal life.” In the end Federal Judge Laura Bastos was forced to order the Bolsonaro administration not to put out any adverts encouraging people to behave contrary to the guidelines issued by the Health Ministry.
As Covid-19 cases have risen, from a few hundred in early March to nearly 6,000 by April 1st, Bolsonaro’s reckless attitude and behaviour have been met with widespread protest.
These began with residents shouting and banging pots from windows and balconies in communities in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, where the governors broke with Bolsonaro to institute quarantine and large-scale closure measures. Social media calls led to these protests quickly spreading to all major Brazilian cities.
The opposition parties’ criticism of Bolsonaro’s conduct has been joined by some of his right-wing allies and supporters. It is reported that Ronaldo Caiado, the rightwing governor of Goiás state, cut ties with the president last week. He is on record as saying “it’s appalling. You cannot govern a country like this.”
Other state governors distancing themselves from Bolsonaro include Carlos Moisés da Silva, governor of strongly pro-Bolsonaro state of Santa Catarina, and Paulo Câmara, governor of the north-eastern state of Pernambuco.
These rumblings of discontent are echoed in sections of the right-wing press, with conservative newspaper Estado de São Paulo lamenting that “scientists around the world are struggling to find a treatment for Covid-19. Meanwhile, in Brazil, the incompetence of the current government is incurable.”
The paper has registered the extent and seriousness of the outbreak by noting that half the population of Brazil lives in cities that have already registered coronavirus, and the total number of Brazilian municipalities with reported infections has grown tenfold in the last 15 days to 362.
There is also a grave risk to Brazil’s indigenous peoples, for whom highly infectious diseases pose a devastating threat, particularly under a president whose actions since assuming office have been so hostile.
While standing in solidarity with progressive movements in Brazil, it’s always important to remember that Bolsonaro only won the Presidential election after left wing front-runner in the polls at the time, former president Lula da Silva, was barred from standing after being jailed on what were widely condemned as trumped-up political charges.
It is clear that Lula would be providing a totally different and more people-centred response to the crisis if he was president. He recently summed up his approach to the issue by saying “after we save the people, we can discuss how to save the economy.”
This is an international crisis and we must stand with all those fighting for a response to it everywhere that save lives and put public health first – as clearly outlined by the World Health Organisation – including those demanding this in Brazil.