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Brazil’s Coronavirus Crisis: Democracy Hanging by a Thread?

13 May 2020
By Dr Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro (center) at a press conference following the STF meeting. Source: Marcos Corrêa/PR

Jair Bolsonaro has shown disregard towards the well-being of the Brazilian people, democratic institutions, the system of checks and balances, constitutional rights and freedoms, and freedom of the press. His raw display of egotism, insensitivity, ideological blindness, and hunger for power might prove to be excruciating amid a global pandemic.

Since the beginning of the global pandemic, Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro downplayed the threat posed by the virus, declaring it was “a minor cold” and stating that he was not concerned about contracting the virus because of his “athletic physique.” When asked by the press about Brazil’s recent spike of coronavirus deaths, Bolsonaro brushed off criticism, answering: “So what? My name is Messiah [a reference to his middle name], but I cannot work miracles.” Brazil’s minister for foreign affairs, Ernesto Araujo, recently published an article in Metapolitica, an anti-globalisation blog, titled “Here comes the communist virus,” in which he declares: “The coronavirus wakes up again for the communist nightmare.” Araujo argues: “the virus appears, in fact, as an immense opportunity to accelerate the globalist project. It was already being carried out through climaticism or climatic alarmism, gender ideology, politically correct dogmatism, immigration, racialism or reorganization of society by principle of race, antinationalism, scientism.”

By giving the global pandemic an ideological spin, the incumbent administration compromises Brazil’s response to the crisis as the death toll continues to steadily rise. Brazil’s official coronavirus numbers are approximately 169,594 confirmed cases and 11,653 reported deaths, nearly three times as much as China. With Brazil’s epidemic still weeks away from its peak, there are growing fears that Brazil will become the new epicentre of the pandemic, as its death toll might soon dwarf those of the US and Italy. But how badly have Brazilian states been affected so far? And how the pandemic is impacting Brazil’s democracy?

Current situation in Brazilians states

Brazil’s coronavirus crisis shows a grim tale of under-resourced public hospitals and funeral homes struggling to keep up with the sharp increase in demand. The worst-hit states show alarming numbers: the state of São Paulo has recorded approximately 37,853 cases and 3,045 deaths; the state of Rio de Janeiro 13,295 cases and 1,205 deaths; Ceará 12,304 cases and 848 deaths; Pernambuco 9,881 cases and 803 deaths; and Amazonia 9,243 cases and 751 deaths. Moreover, it is argued that coronavirus cases in Brazil are vastly underreported. Brazil’s public health system data indicates a likelihood that many coronavirus deaths are not being included in the official death toll as many Brazilians are dying at home or simply have not been tested for the virus. Despite the explosion of coronavirus cases throughout Brazil, as of last week, only three state governors have called for a full lockdown.

One of the worst-hit cities in Brazil is Manaus in the state of Amazonia, due to its lack of infrastructure. The death toll in Manaus is so high that coffins are being stacked on top of each other in trenches at the city’s cemetery, and the supply of coffins in the city is running out. Brazil’s national funeral home association has asked for coffins to be airlifted from São Paulo to Manaus since there is no road access. The state’s public health is on the brink of total collapse. The mayor of Manaus, Arthur Virgilio Neto from the Brazilian Social Democracy Party, has stated that “the worst is yet to come.” Recently, Virgilio Neto sent videos and letters pleading to 21 world leaders, including US president Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to step in and help, as cases and deaths continue to rise uncontrollably.

Brazil’s democracy in jeopardy amid a pandemic: From political crisis to constitutional crisis

Amid an unprecedented public health crisis, President Bolsonaro has sacked Brazil’s minister for health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had been strictly following World Health Organization (WHO) advice on how to control the pandemic. A week later, Brazilian Minister for Justice Sergio Moro resigned, creating an unprecedented political and constitutional crisis. Moro became popular for leading the mega anti-corruption Operation Car Wash, which lead to the arrest of several Brazilian politicians and the imprisonment of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva from the Worker’s Party. Moro’s resignation was explosive: he accused Bolsonaro of meddling in Brazil’s federal police by appointing Alexandre Ramagem, previously the head of Brazil’s intelligence agency, as the new federal police director. Ramagem has close ties with the Bolsonaro family. High Court judge Alexandre de Moraes vetoed his appointment, deeming it unconstitutional.

Bolsonaro regarded Justice Moraes’s decision “as an interference.” In response to the High Court’s decision, Bolsonaro’s supporters have held anti-democracy protests. Since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak Brazil has been experiencing anti-lockdown protests instigated by president Bolsonaro’s anti-lockdown views, with Bolsonaro joining protesters in total disregard to social distancing guidelines. But since Moro’s resignation, these protests have openly morphed into anti-democracy protests. Protesters defend Bolsonaro and his government, calling out for a military intervention and for Brazil’s congress and high court to be shut down while chanting insults to the president of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia from the Democrats.

At the anti-democracy protests in Brasilia, Bolsonaro declared that his patience is over and that he will no longer allow interference by the High Court or the Congress. Bolsonaro also stated: “the time for rascals is over,” and yelled to the crowds, “now the people are in power,” “we don’t want to negotiate anything,” and “enough of the old politics, now is Brazil above all things and God above all.” Bolsonaro continued this line of reasoning, stating, “I’m sure of one thing, we have the people at our side, we have the Armed Forces at the side of the people, by law, by order, by democracy, and by freedom.” In these protests, journalists have been physically attacked with kicks and punches. Notwithstanding escalating attacks towards Brazil’s free press, Bolsonaro verbally attacked journalists during a press conference, telling them to “shut up.” Brazil’s current political environment of creeping authoritarianism and intolerance raises fears for Brazil’s system of checks and balances, independence of institutions, freedom of the press, and the future of democratic freedoms.

The coronavirus pandemic is increasingly out of control in Brazil, one of the most unequal countries in the world. Regrettably, when a bi-partisan approach and national unity was mostly needed, Brazil’s far-right president Bolsonaro created political division, leading to a sluggish response to the crisis. However, the unfolding political crisis is yet another distraction to what should be the incumbent administration’s leading concern: getting case numbers down, controlling the pandemic, and preserving human life.

Flavia Bellieni Zimmermann holds a Bachelor of Laws with Honours from the Pontifical Catholic University in Rio de Janeiro and a Graduate Diploma of International Relations and National Security from Curtin University, Western Australia. She is currently a PhD Candidate at the University of Western Australia Centre for Muslim States and Societies. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.