Bolsonaro’s death drive

The Brazilian president has engineered a humanitarian catastrophe

April 29, 2021
Image: Foto Arena LTDA / Alamy Stock Photo
Image: Foto Arena LTDA / Alamy Stock Photo

A Brazilian death is, above all, unremarkable. A country with less than 3 per cent of the global population has borne over 10 per cent of reported Covid-19 deaths: the daily toll hovers around 3,000. It may yet, of course, grow further. When we reached 100,000 deaths in August last year, it felt momentous. The slow march towards 400,000, by comparison, barely registers. The numbers have become meaninglessly high. We simply can’t process them any more.

In many of the states which make up Brazil’s federal system, life has returned almost to normal. Streets are crowded; maskless men preach in cramped churches. There is a shrugging-off of horror, a resigned look in the eyes of people sharing buses, subway cars and tiny office spaces. This while cities around the country register more deaths than births, and some hospitals lack the supplies to sedate their patients. In two weeks, the country will once again have lost a small town’s worth of human lives, mothers and fathers and children alike going into ever-growing rows of graves. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

Plague moves fast: cures are slow. If Brazilian society feels open, it is not thanks to the vaccine rollout. Despite a recent uptick in the vaccination rate, now at 18 doses per 100 residents, Brazil struggles to immunise anywhere near a pandemic-ending percentage of the population. It’s hard to argue that this is a structural issue with Brazilian healthcare: the National Immunisation Programme has a history of delivering mass vaccination campaigns in very little time, despite the logistical challenge of vaccinating a country with the underdeveloped infrastructure and sheer size of Brazil. This is a supply issue. And supply issues, of course, are political issues: a consequence of the government’s anti-scientific stance and deliberately slow vaccine procurement.

Foreign commentators like to frame Brazil’s woes as a problem of incompetence. It’s a reasonable conclusion to draw from the data: that something must have gone wrong here. The rise of the alarming new variant, too, shoulders a great deal of the blame for the disaster tearing through the country, and of course mutations have complicated every nation’s response. But the suffering is not a divine punishment, a plague of locusts that can only be endured. The government has actively decided that hundreds of thousands of lives are a price worth paying.

To understand why Brazil has allowed—is allowing—this tragedy to unfold, one must understand President Jair Bolsonaro’s core beliefs. Despite building an electoral coalition of free-market enthusiasts, anti-corruption crusaders and an entire constellation of socially conservative religious forces, Bolsonaro is committed to none of them. His stances on all these matters have adapted under new pressures and for different environments. One core belief, however, has proven unshakeable. Bolsonaro has a death drive. The president professes his admiration of the Brazilian military dictatorship, but it is not its polished generals who inspire him. His idea of a national hero is, rather, Colonel Ustra, the convicted torturer.

“What will you have me do?” the president asked the country, as it hit yet another grim milestone. “I am not a gravedigger,” he added, implying the total was not his concern. Since the arrival of the virus on Brazilian shores, the president has fired two health ministers for daring to recommend lockdowns and a third for incompetence; cut economic support for isolation measures; scoffed about masks; agitated against local prevention measures by governors and mayors; advocated ineffective and unproved medications; diminished Coronavac, the country’s main available vaccine, and delayed purchasing others. Even his government’s occasional concessions to common sense reek of hollow realpolitik. When allowed to exercise his will, the presidential death drive moves inexorably towards greater and greater sacrifices of the population.

“The dictatorship only did half of its job,” Jair Bolsonaro said in an interview before he became president. “It should have killed 30,000. Only then the country could move forward.” The president has moved us forward far faster than even he must have hoped: the coronavirus death toll has not stopped at 30,000, nor ten times that number. The power of the president shapes a nation. This is the country he has always longed for. Long after the pandemic has passed and his government is gone, Brazilians will know themselves irrevocably changed by the experience. There comes a point during torture when everyone breaks. Brazil is breaking.