(200702) -- RORAIMA, July 2, 2020 (Xinhua) -- Indigenous people wait for medical consultation in Roraima state, Brazil, on June 30, 2020. A Brazilian military medical team is providing medical care to the indigenous people from June 30 to July 5, with ser

Brazil's stadium of the dead

Bolsonaro—who now has the disease himself—has overseen one of the worst coronavirus death tolls in the world. But then, a war on human dignity is what he promised all along
July 10, 2020

Who should we blame for Brazil’s death toll? According to the local press, coronavirus deaths now exceed 65,000. And this can only be an underestimate, thanks to a severe lack of proper testing and an even more severe surplus of statistical massaging by smart bureaucracy. A lack of autopsies, for example, often obscures the cause of death, which makes deaths from the virus hard to pick out. Right now, the country obsessed with football metaphors could fill a stadium with its coronavirus dead, most of them black or brown, most of them poor, all of them human beings. Who is to blame? There is an obvious culprit, of course. With the debatable exception of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro has taken the pandemic less seriously than any other world leader. At every level he has downplayed the threat, calling it “merely a flu.” He pointedly broke lockdown both personally, disregarding social distancing guidelines, and politically, trying to force governors to reopen their states. He has fired not one—but two successive health ministers, the second still not permanently replaced as I write. This behaviour should not come as a surprise. For the same reason, we should not expect it to change, even now that Bolsonaro is confirmed to have tested positive for Covid-19 himself. Bolsonaro is many things, but he has been unfailingly sincere. He told the Brazilian people, time and time again, who he was and what he believed in. Supporters who took his rhetoric to be simply rallying cries against Workers’ Party welfare expansion, or strong words to emphasise law and order, were lying to themselves. Bolsonaro is a conspiracy theorist to the core. He truly sees it as his mission to defeat not only values such as diversity and human rights, but law and, perhaps above all, science. His attachment to hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure and his open scorn for any measures that might stop the virus are not diversionary tactics but the practice of his foundational beliefs: he sees doctors and scientists as his natural enemy. So it’s tempting to place the blame for our stadium of the dead entirely on Bolsonaro. That would be a mistake too. The sickness of his government is only a symptom of a society that has been ailing for decades. Coronavirus has exposed societies’ failure to protect their vulnerable. In Brazil, the vulnerable could fill countless stadiums, and despite brief periods of improvement, they have been practically abandoned by its governments. In the north of the country, where hospitals were the first to collapse, there are serious concerns that many indigenous tribes of the Amazon may be completely wiped out. In Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the residents of the favelas are having to choose whether to risk their lives or starve their children. Across the country, governors persist in reopening states where cases spiral up, take no measures to address the risks to the homeless, and ignore the lack of protective equipment in public hospitals. For most countries, defeating the virus seems like the first step towards a painful economic recovery. For Brazil, however, talk of even a painful recovery is too optimistic; part of the reason why the Covid-19 crisis cannot be addressed is that misery had been increasing for years before the crisis hit, a combination of wrecking-ball austerity measures and political mismanagement. Bolsonaro’s right-hand man, the economy minister Paulo Guedes, has responded to the emergency with extraordinary lethargy. The support programme of R$600 (about £90) for Brazilians who lost income during the pandemic has helped some in the most deprived areas, but the delays in its rollout caused widespread problems and anxiety. The damage of coronavirus has also been political. Even before Bolsonaro fell ill, he found himself cornered by governors, Congress, his own former allies and a failing economy—the country was left without leadership. This vacuum wasn’t insignificant. It meant that the energy that should have been focused on managing the crisis was frittered away on Bolsonaro’s campaign to save himself politically. Brazil will survive coronavirus. And it will survive the coming economic crisis: it has faced many of them before, and it will face many more. These facts are not reasons for optimism. Brazilians have been living with crises and poverty since before the idea of Brazil existed. The dead will be buried, but the country will survive, along with the conditions that allowed both the deadly pandemic and the diseased politics to grow so wildly out of control.