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Pandemic, Crisis, and Beyond in Brazil

10 Sep 2021
By Dr Lucas Leite
A health professional from the Special Indigenous Health District (DSEI) prepares a dose of the Coronavac vaccine. Source: IMF/ Raphael Alves

The crisis in Brazil is not only related to COVID-19, but what the government did about it. The implications for Brazil’s federal government will be severe if its failure to act appropriately continues.

Anyone looking at Brazil’s vaccination statistics may be surprised that the country is ahead of the United States, Mexico, or Japan concerning those who received at least one dose. But the numbers do not reflect the reality that Brazilians went through when faced with the COVID-19 pandemic. Thus perhaps it is better to pay attention to the more than 500,000 dead or 20 million cases since cases began to be registered.

These numbers carry the mark of the federal government’s failure to lead an effective and universal campaign to combat COVID-19. It is not that there was no lack of action, but just the opposite, given that options included doing nothing or just responding to stimuli and pressure from civil society itself.

The delay in responding to the increase in cases and a cruel denial of COVID-19 as a serious problem led by President Jair Bolsonaro was decisive for the country to suffer an unprecedented  health, economic, political, and social crisis. Furthermore, several exchanges in the Ministry of Health suggest a lack of direction and constant intervention of the president by a representative who perpetuated his belief in medications that were proven to be ineffective and by the delay in acquiring vaccines.

This construction of context seeks to demonstrate the lack of institutional conditions in a country that not so long ago led to international cooperation in health and the environment, for example. However, the absence of national projection abroad in the current government has also marked the inability to negotiate vaccines – delayed due to alleged corruption schemes investigated by the Brazilian justice system. Thus, one of the exciting elements of Brazil’s international relations that could gain strength in the coming years is that of federal diplomacy, led by subnational actors.

The delayed and inadequate federal response to COVID-19 resulted at one point in the search for vaccines by state and municipal governments. Contrary to the anti-China speech established by President Jair Bolsonaro – in poor reproduction of the Trumpist narrative – and led by João Dória, governor of the wealthiest state in the country, several state government representatives approached foreign companies and governments to negotiate directly with them. As a result, many vaccines applied in Brazil came from a Chinese manufacturer in partnership with the Butantan Institute. The federal government tried to stop such negotiations, claiming that it was an initiative outside the state’s attributions, not corroborated by the Federal Supreme Court.

This initiative can encourage more subnational governments to seek external international, technical, and financial cooperation alternatives. Furthermore, it represented the possibility of circumventing a static government incapable of dialoguing with federated entities – Brazil is a federative republic. Consequently, subnational units have autonomy in matters defined in the Federal Constitution.

It is also necessary to emphasise the importance of public institutions linked to health in the country. Brazil has shown that, despite the federal government, it has a good infrastructure for vaccinating a large part of the population in a short period. The Butantan Institute and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, in addition to research conducted at federal universities (public and free), were essential in producing quality knowledge and information. The emergence of Brazil as a country capable of anticipating new pandemics will require governments to be more concerned with funding research and valuing researchers. If Brazil wants to assume a more significant role in the international scenario, significantly increase its technological capacity.

The other concerns for Brazil are domestic political constraints and innovation. The search for a vaccine made in Brazil did not happen, notably because the federal government refrained from assuming the necessary costs and encouraging the leading research centers in such an undertaking. Now, there is the development of vaccines produced locally. Brazil could have conducted this process in advance and stood out among countries like the United States, China, Germany, and India. For the future, the challenge remains to innovate in a more intelligent way so the country can assume a leadership role in the public health sector.

Finally, Brazil, which seems to be approaching the “end” of this pandemic, has not defined its strategic objectives. The government appears incapable of objectively establishing its preferences and goals in terms of foreign policy. If new domestic actors with agency and action capacity emerged, the federal government, in particular the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, could be undermined. It will not be easy for Brazil to restore the image of a country concerned with stability and respect for multilateralism. By pointing to himself as a tropical Donald Trump, President Bolsonaro has brought the worst in common to both countries: denial, unscientific discourse, and populism.

Furthermore, the speech with which the federal government tried to guide the media and the population sought to create a false dichotomy between saving the economy and saving lives, which justified the president’s inaction in imposing a lockdown in the country when deaths surpassed 3000 daily. The result was hundreds of thousands of deaths and the absence of an effective plan to resume economic growth. Brazilian growth in the last quarter was -0.2 percent, while countries that quickly enacted the lockdown already sustain much higher rates.

In the short term, Brazil is an unattractive country. The political instability caused by the constant dispute between Jair Bolsonaro and the other powers and governors has turned away investors, who prefer to remain alert until the political climate improves. With weak federal government incentives to employees and entrepreneurs, the country cannot adequately allocate its workforce. Inflation resulting in part from the rise in prices threatens to destabilise an economy that grew by around 7.5 percent in 2010.

The challenges for the coming years will consist precisely in renewing Brazilian credentials abroad. It will be necessary to reaffirm the democratic values ​​by which the country has always guided its activities and renew ties with neighboring countries and former partners. Chinese dependence, including on vaccines, will remain strong in a Brazil that is unable to diversify its international trade precisely because it lacks investments in science and technology and lacks a thriving and innovative industry.

Fixing the house will be the goal for the next few years, if not for the next decade. Ensuring legal and political stability is urgent for a country with millions of people in poverty and dependent on social assistance. The pandemic will end, but the presidential virus will still do damage.

Dr Lucas Leite is Associate Professor at Fundação Armando Alvares Penteado (FAAP/Brazil). Lucas holds a PhD in International Relations (UNESP/Brazil) and is a former Visiting Researcher at Georgetown University. Lucas is a researcher at the National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States (INCT-INEU).

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