The Economist

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a terrible toll on Brazil. In April, the country suffered the highest number of deaths of any nation on earth, with 13% of the world’s Covid-19 fatalities. The virus has killed 1 in every 400 Brazilians, but many experts believe the true death toll may be even higher. According to The Economist, the handling of Covid-19 in Brazil has resulted in a staggering 690.000 excess deaths.

Many accuse President Jair Bolsonaro of this catastrophe. A 1288-page report by a special Senate committee effectively blames Bolsonaro’s policies for the deaths of more than 300,000 Brazilians and urges authorities to imprison the President. Various crimes mentioned in the report include irregular use of public funds, violation of social rights, and most critically, crimes against humanity.

Originally, the report also accused Bolsonaro of homicide and genocide, given how the coronavirus disproportionally hit Brazil’s indigenous groups in the Amazon region. However, these charges were dropped from the final report. The reason behind this: senators were concerned that such severe charges were too difficult to prove, which could weaken the report and the overall possibility of any legal consequences for Bolsonaro.

Figure 1: Gravediggers carrying a coffin of a Covid-19 victim in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Response to the coronavirus pandemic

The report claims that Bolsonaro’s government purposefully let the virus rip through the country with the aim of achieving ‘herd immunity’ and refused to impose lockdowns, which in turn led to unnecessary infections and deaths. What is more, the report found that the President had pushed for ineffective and dangerous drugs like hydroxychloroquine, whilst spreading misinformation about the virus and dismissing Covid-19 as nothing else than the flu, shrugging it off as “no big deal”. Many critics have accused Bolsonaro of choosing the economy over lives, without saving either one.

In March 2021, there were over 3.000 deaths every day, with around 125 Brazilians succumbing to the virus every hour. Epidemiologists say Brazil could have avoided such a devastating situation if the government had promoted the use of masks and social distancing, as well as actively negotiated access to vaccines. Instead, the government delayed the purchase of  Covid-19 vaccines, pushing the health care system to the point of collapse. Bolsonaro even joked that the Pfizer jab may turn people into crocodiles, and went as far as claiming that immunized people would be more vulnerable to HIV.

Although more than half of the country now disapproves of the job Bolsonaro is doing as President, in the early months of the pandemic Bolsonaro’s popularity soared. One possible explanation for this can be found in Bolsonaro’s government decision to issue a massive welfare programme. From April to December 2020, around 66 million Brazilians were given emergency aid to help them through the pandemic, boosting Bolsonaro’s popularity. However, the expiration of this government funding at the end of 2020 essentially unravelled its effects. The rate of Brazilians in extreme poverty increased from 6,1% of the population in 2019 to 9,6% in 2021.

Figure 2: A woman holds a placard reading “despite you, tomorrow will be another day” as she takes part in a protest calling for the impeachment of Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro’s popularity plummets

Since his election in 2018, Bolsonaro and his Minister of the Economy Paulo Guedes, a free-market economist, promised to impose radical reforms and develop a new social welfare programme: the Auxilio Brasil scheme. But their pledge to get the economy back on track had only minimal, temporary results, among which are some useful pension reforms and legal independence for the central bank. Yet in no time, these reforms stopped short. Now that this initial impetus has come to a halt, unemployment stands above 12% and about 117 million people are currently food insecure in Brazil, which is roughly 55%  of the country’s population.  

The economic aid at the start of the pandemic has dried out. As investors lock their gazes on Brazil’s public finances, they are becoming increasingly uneasy about Bolsonaro’s efforts to push for changes in austerity laws. Essentially, this would enable the President to bolster social spending ahead of the 2022 elections. These concerns have caused the Brazilian real to lose about 8% of its value against the dollar this year despite rising interest rates. Aggravating matters further, the annual inflation rate in Brazil is running a 5-year high, increasing to 10,67% in October 2021.

As could be expected, in recent months Bolsonaro’s popularity rating has been the lowest since he came to power. Aware of Bolsonaro’s corruption scandals and accusations related to the procurement of vaccines, thousands of Brazilians have taken to the streets to express their discontent and outrage towards the President. Yet Bolsonaro shows little enthusiasm towards policies needed to get the economy back on track.

The reality is that some of Bolsonaro’s decisions not only have a huge toll on Brazil, but on the entire planet as well. The Amazon rainforest has experienced a surge in deforestation since Bolsonaro took office, and the impact has been catastrophic. Since the start of his presidency in 2019, the country has lost a forest area bigger than Belgium. Satellite data indicated that deforestation increased by about 22% from 2020 to 2021.

Figure 3: Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

What awaits Brazil?

So far, Brazil’s democratic institutions have managed to hold Bolsonaro in check. The Congress and the Supreme Court have blocked some of his more extreme proposals, such as relaxing gun laws. Moreover, the Congress-lead investigation into Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic could hurt him in the upcoming 2022 general elections.

The report looked at two kinds of misdeed: “ordinary crimes”, which can be prosecuted in the courts, and “crimes of responsibility”, for which the President might be impeached. Brazil’s Supreme Court has recently opened an investigation into the President’s vaccine comments and the dissemination of fake news. If Bolsonaro is formally charged, he could be suspended from office while the Supreme Court decides the case. If convicted, he would be blocked from the presidency for eight years and likely face years in prison.

Bolsonaro’s fingerprints are all over the coronavirus disaster in Brazil. As nearly 14 million unemployed people fall into starvation and the country succumbs to the economic and social devastation from the Covid-19 pandemic, many Brazilians blame the government’s dishonesty and corruption for this catastrophe and demand Bolsonaro’s impeachment. In the words of the Brazilian President himself, it remains to be seen whether next year he will be in prison, dead, or winning the 2022 elections.