Jair Bolsonaro. Photo credit: Marcelo Chello / Shutterstock.com
In the third week of April, when asked about the rising death toll, Jair Bolsonaro answered that he didn’t know: “I’m not a gravedigger,” the president of Brazil snapped. When it was called to his attention the following week that the number of Covid-19 deaths in Brazil had exceeded the mortality rate in China, Bolsonaro responded to a reporter, “So what? I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?” Referencing his middle name, Messias, the president continued, “My name’s Messiah, but I can’t work miracles.”
Today, Brazil lives in fear. There is the fear of illness and death from Covid-19. Then there is an ongoing fear of the government’s criminal irresponsibility, which may lead to a total collapse of the social and political body, something never before seen in a country of this size. War and civil unrest are on the horizon, and the government is directly fostering chaos, in the interests of reasserting totalitarian governance.
Jair Bolsonaro was elected as an anti-system candidate, one who promised to make room for ultraliberal free-market policies. For most of his voters, the parliament and corruption are the same. As in the United States, an anti-system agenda was confused with an anti-corruption platform, as if the entire political system built after the end of the dictatorship in 1985 was irreparably corrupt. Bolsonaro promoted himself as an “anti-establishment” populist leader who would not negotiate with Congress, who was above parliamentary constraints, and who represented the “people” directly, without any mediation.
However, whenever conflicts between Congress and Bolsanaro arise, the president’s private interests have prevailed. While Congress, which consists mostly of members sympathetic to the ultraliberal agenda, has passed market-friendly reforms in the last year, the president has — on more than one occasion — disrupted these measures. Thus we have a uniquely chaotic regime in which the government opposes itself.
COVID-19 rendered the whole ultraliberal agenda of fiscal restriction and diminishing state intervention in the economy untenable. With the sudden constriction of the economy, the government’s failure to intervene will lead to an unprecedented depression. Bolsonaro’s economic team, set up to dismantle state intervention, does not know what to do in this situation. A series of economic measures were designed and approved by Congress, but the federal government has resisted them and made execution difficult. Even as demands on the underfunded health care system escalate, fiscal restraint remains the policy.
If Brazil is not yet in chaos, it is only because the pandemic arrived relatively late, and the state governments learned from other countries and from the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendations. For example, by the time infections began to appear, states imposed social distancing measures. The federal government, however, has continually opposed such measures, arguing that the economy cannot stop and that Brazil cannot afford such the “luxury” of suspending its economy. “I’m sorry,” said Bolsonaro: “Some people will die, they will die, it is part of life… You can’t stop a car factory because of traffic deaths.”
Inside the government, only the minister of health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, supported the action of the governors and defended social distancing. Although he is an experienced politician linked to private health insurance companies, Mandetta realized that only social distancing would protect the public health system from immediate collapse. His actions, however, did not extend beyond this, although he bought the time necessary to expand the number of hospital beds. The only improvements in the public health system have come from the state governors, and the mayors of large cities, who have managed to work together despite important party differences.
Perhaps because of this, Bolsonaro sees all concerted efforts to combat COVID-19 as acts of opposition to his government. His reasoning is similar to Donald Trump’s: If governors succeed in imposing social distancing, the resulting economic distress will dampen his reelection bid in 2022.
Bolsonaro is doing what he can to interfere with these local and state public health measures. He has dismissed Mandetta, the only voice in the government supportive of the governors, mayors, and, perhaps worst of all, the WHO, which the president and his allies characterize as an agent of global communism. In Mandetta’s place, Bolsanaro appointed Nelson Teich, who has no experience in either public administration or the public health system. Soon after his appointment, Teich announced that it is rational and necessary to withhold medical treatment from patients if the costs are too high.
Not surprisingly, Bolsonaro also refuses to work with Congress in facing a terrible and unprecedented situation that affects not only Brazil but the globe. Instead, he consults with the so-called “Hate-Cabinet,” a fascistic nucleus of his own sons, the ideologist Olavo de Carvalho, the ministers of education and foreign affairs, and active and former military officers like General Augusto Heleno. For the “Hate Cabinet,” the pandemic and all health and economic policies related to it are part of a global communist plot. They expect casualties in this war since in their minds, Brazil will ultimately be free of two “viruses”: communism and COVID-19.
But the “Hate-Cabinet” is more than a board of advisors. It uses social networks to keep alive the social-ideological base of the Bolsonaro government. This work has only intensified amidst the pandemic, as these networks viciously and systematically attack governors, mayors, members of Congress, the Supreme Federal Court, the former minister of health, and important trade partners like China. The “Hate-Cabinet” also conceived the president’s participation in a recent public demonstration that sought the shutting down of Congress and the Supreme Court, and a return to dictatorship.
Since last year, the “Hate-Cabinet” has been under investigation by the Supreme Court and by Congress for allegedly promoting a fake news racket. Led by the Federal Police, it has proved what everyone already knew: The president’s sons are key players in the dissemination of fake news. When this was revealed, Bolsonaro dismissed the director of the Federal Police. His replacement is, of course, someone close to the Bolsonaro family and the “Hate-Cabinet.” This decision even caused Minister of Justice Sérgio Moro, whose prosecution of former president Lula paved the way for Bolsonaro’s election, to resign.
As of now, the Supreme Court has not only blocked the appointment of the new director of the Federal Police but has authorized the general prosecutor of the republic to investigate the reason behind Bolsonaro’s decision. Facing one of the greatest crises that humanity has ever experienced, a crisis that no country can overcome alone, Brazil is simultaneously plagued by a political crisis and the planned dysfunction that the Bolsonaro government promotes.
However, Brazilian civil society has been resilient. Despite social distancing, intellectuals are working together with representatives in both the House of Representatives and the Senate to discuss and design policies. New voices are finding space in the media, and a stronger democratic political front is emerging.
But it is unclear that they can succeed. Strictly speaking, Brazil has no government. We do not have someone in power capable of or interested in overcoming the public health crisis that awaits us, only a criminal cabinet government and Bolsonaro, a would-be dictator, who sees in the disarray his best chance for survival.
Daniel Peres is a professor of philosophy at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBA), Brazil.