I read a few days ago that almost 1 500 South Africans are stranded abroad due to travel restrictions –– that could have easily been me. Until the crisis brought upon by the novel coronavirus, I was living in São Paulo, Brazil, where I was attempting to write a thesis before President Cyril Ramaphosa summoned me home.
São Paulo has more or less been home for more than two years. The chaotic sprawling megacity of about 22-million people is essentially Johannesburg on steroids with a peace of sorts imposed on the city by a single organised-crime faction. I had been debating if I should stay in my apartment in Bixiga and stick the crisis out in Brazil or return to my family.
Two events convinced me to return home. The first was Ramaphosa’s address about the severity of the crisis and the measures we needed to impose. The second was the utter irresponsibility and truculent malevolence of the far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro; who in an act of stupidity broke isolation after being exposed to the coronavirus. He claims to have tested negative, but refuses to publicise his medical results and, as of writing 25 members of his entourage tested positive after a recent trip to Florida.
Bosonaro had met US President Donald Trump at the infamous Mar-A-Lago resort, where he declared the whole coronavirus pandemic, “a fantasy”. On the same day as Ramaphosa addressed the country, Bolsonaro broke self-isolation (and has yet to return to it) to meet his most fanatical supporters gathered on the streets of the capital Brasilia in a protest against Brazil’s Supreme Court and Congress.
The South African response
The juxtaposition between the calm, assured Ramaphosa and the attitude of the Brazilian president urging his supporters to break quarantine because it was only “a little cold” was enough to get me on the next flight back to South Africa. Other pro-Bolsonaro extremists took to the streets on March 31 to celebrate the anniversary of Brazil’s 1964 military coup.
There may be many problems with our government’s response to our crisis, most notably the authoritarian opportunism of the security cluster, which wants to assure us they are handling the situation by gratuitously employing ‘skop, skit and donner’ to combat a pandemic, but our government is at least taking the crisis seriously in very difficult circumstances.
We don’t know what’s going to happen to the poorest and most vulnerable people; we do know our informal economy is screwed and, of course, we need more money and services for the working class, but these are discussions we are able to hold in South Africa. In Brazil the federal government is an active obstacle to tackling the pandemic effectively and the president is attempting to use the coronavirus to escalate the political crisis for his own gain.
The consequences will be devastating for the country’s already overburdened public health system, weakened by years of austerity and the potential for the virus to cut a path of death across the country. In the best-case scenario, about 50 000 people will die; worse-case scenarios are too horrific to imagine. As of writing there are 7 022 cases and 252 deaths, these numbers will continue to rise at an alarming rate.
Gross personal irresponsibility
Brazil is the current leader in the race for the world’s most inept response to the Covid-19 crisis. In the words of Celso Rocha de Barros –– a leading columnist for Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, Bolsonaro is the president who “ordered Brazil to die”. This is a president who, with his unruly brood of politician sons ,unleashed a barrage of fake news urging Brazilians to break with the quarantine.
He has personally potentially exposed hundreds of Brazilians to the virus and has his supporters doing motor parades out across the country with loudhailers urging people to break quarantine. His supporters claim that quarantines are only for bums, the aged and communists. Bolsonaro has consistently and publicly undermined his own Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta: a powerful rural boss in his own right from the soya barons’ fiefdom of Mato Grosso do Sul. Mandetta happens also to be an actual medical doctor who has been trying to respond to the crisis in line with global trends.
When criticised for his actions, Bolsonaro reassured those listening that “we are all going to die one day”. He has also claimed that Brazilians possess a special type of natural immunity that will protect them from the virus, “You see the guy jumping into the sewer there, going out, diving, right? And nothing happens to him.” The president also boasted the virus would not fell him, because he is an “athlete”.
It has been left to Brazil’s powerful state governors to take up the mantle of dealing with the crisis. Lockdowns have been declared across the country, crucially in Brazil’s two megacities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro — the epicentres of the crisis. Twenty-six of Brazil’s 27 state governors have aligned themselves against Bolsonaro including right-wing former allies, such as São Paulo’s João Doria and Rio’s Wilson Witzel, and center-left governors as Bahia’s Rui Costa and Maranhão’s Flávio Dino. Bolsonaro has labelled the governors’ responses as “criminal” acts of sabotage against the economy.
Given Bolsonaro’s response to the crisis and Brazil’s dire economic situation — the economy was tanking before the coronavirus arrived and the major economic centres went into lockdown — it is no surprise then that Brazilian elites and much of the public increasingly believes he is not the right man for the job. For more than two weeks there have been nightly pot-and-pan-banging protests, accompanied by chants of “Bolsonaro out”, across the country.
As a coalition statement by Brazil’s left-leaning parties declared: “Bolsonaro is more than a political problem, he became a public health problem, he lacks magnanimity, he should resign, which would be the least expensive gesture to allow a democratic exit for the country.” But if he won’t resign, what can be done?
Impeachment or political quarantine?
The original plan for dealing with Bolsonaro proposed by the country’s de facto prime minister — the president of the Congress, Rodrigo Maia — was to “politically quarantine” Bolsonaro. This would leave him to continue to lose public support with his macho blustering about the virus, while Congress, the health ministry and governors tackle the crisis. Multiple different impeachment requests have been left at Maia’s desk awaiting his approval and they could well be put to use in the near future.
This doesn’t appear to be working, as Bolsonaro has only escalated his provocations by attempting to use the official government communication channels to launch a campaign urging Brazilians to break quarantine and return to work, before he was blocked by a court ruling. Twitter, Instagram and Facebook have even resorted to taking down the president’s posts for spreading false information. Bolsonaro, as of writing, is trying to fire his health minister, in an attempt to further intensify the crisis. The truth is, Bolsonaro and his clan only know one way: when in doubt, escalate the provocations and ride the wave of crisis. He’s been doing so for decades and it brought him to the presidency.
I wouldn’t rule against Bolsonaro surviving this crisis by surfing the wave of chaos, given the scale of the catastrophe we are facing, but the signs are bad for Bolsonaro. The two cabinet ministers who undeservedly granted him a veneer of respectability — Justice Minister Sérgio Moro, the protagonist of the Lava Jato anti-corruption investigation and Finance Minister Paulo Guedes, Bolsonaro’s contact with the financial-markets crowd, have both broken with Bolsonaro and are apparently siding with Mandetta, the health minister.
There are also signs that the country’s powerful military and military police appear to be moving away from a president they firmly backed only a few weeks ago. They have yet to jump ship, but it could be imminent. Of the major forces in Brazil politics, only the evangelicals appear to be backing Bolsonaro and are intensifying their own disinformation campaigns about Covid-19.
Perhaps we could see Bolsonaro impeached in the next few weeks, given that Maia’s strategy of political quarantine has proven not to be enough to contain the crisis. But what if Bolsonaro is removed? The man who would be president, current vice-president general Hamilton Mourão, is another proto-authoritarian, meaning we could see a more direct role for the military in governing the country. But who knows what will happen now that this Pandora’s box has been opened? Let’s be thankful that our government — for all its faults — is not following Brazil’s example.
Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University, who was, until recently, based in São Paulo. He is a contributing editor for Jacobin magazine and the Africa is a Country website