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In a Pandemic, Bolsonaro Is More Dangerous Than Ever

Hugo Albuquerque
Nicolas Allen

Jair Bolsonaro is still refusing to implement basic isolation measures to protect Brazilians against the onslaught of COVID-19, hurtling the country toward disaster. Now his negligence is feeding widespread dissent, and even his former allies are calling for the far-right leader’s removal.

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro speaks with press at the official residence during the coronavirus pandemic at the Palacio do Alvorada March, 25, 2020 in Brasilia, Brazil.  Andressa Anholete / Getty

Hell is empty and all the devils are here.” So speaks the castaway Ferdinand in Scene II, Act I of The Tempest, William Shakespeare’s play about a politically motivated shipwreck. Brazilians today might find themselves recalling the Bard’s celebrated line: the coronavirus pandemic has washed ashore in the midst of a national political crisis that is quickly escalating into a full-blown economic crisis.

Just like The Tempest, the Brazilian plot has an air of conspiracy, a similar opening premise — wreckage — and a common underlying context: a coup d’état. In fact, ever since the removal of former president Dilma Rousseff by impeachment in 2016, the country has been living in a state of near-total anomie.

In the wake of the groundless impeachment proceedings against Dilma, Bolsonaro has committed countless impeachable offences. But perhaps none compares with the outright negationist attitude the Brazilian head of state has adopted toward the corona pandemic. Speaking on national television on March 24, Bolsonaro showed no signs of heeding the calls raised by the entire Brazilian political class to implement emergency isolation measures. In fact, Bolsonaro has only radicalized his negationist discourse in the face of mounting evidence that Brazil is on the brink of a catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

There is only one logical conclusion, if Brazil is to have any chance of averting certain disaster: Bolsonaro has got to go.

Stormy Seas

Since March 17, when the first death caused by COVID-19 was registered, windows across Brazil’s major cities have been shaking as cacerolazo protests register discontent with Bolsonaro and the government’s response to the pandemic. What’s more, since the Saudis and Russians announced on March 9 that they would maintain petroleum production levels in the face of falling demand, forcing crude barrel prices to plummet, the Brazilian stock exchange has been in free fall and the value of the Real has nose-dived.

On the face of things, Brazil simply appears to be keeping pace with an unfolding global tragedy. But Brazilian stocks and bonds were falling well before March 9 and the Brazilian Real has been losing value for some time, belying the myth of Bolsonaro’s economic triumph; while austerity provided bumper profits for the financial sector, wages have shrunk and social spending has been cut, forcing the Brazilian domestic economy to contract as Brazil gambles its dwindling fortunes on a servile relation with Donald Trump.

While there has been an exodus of international investment since 2019 — particularly from the local stock market — the Brazilian upper-middle class remains optimistic and continues to invest in stock shares instead of the more secure, and less profitable, government bonds. Meanwhile, few among them seem concerned that the Amazon is literally in flames, that activists are being murdered, or that indigenous people are being stripped of their land.

For too long, the pandemic that began in China was regarded as a distant affair that would never affect Brazil, and still, the country has taken virtually no precautionary measures. Brazil’s universal and free public health system, once a model for other emerging countries, has been systematically neglected with an eye to its eventual privatization; indeed Bolsonaro’s Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, is a powerful CEO in the private health care sector.

Worse still, pre-pandemic political debate in Brazil has been dominated by the March 15 protests that were called for by Bolsonaro, targeting the Supreme Federal Court (Brazil’s Supreme Court) and the Congress. These protests were based on the unfounded claim that those institutions are trying to prevent Bolsonaro from governing.

Facing growing criticism, even from would-be allies in traditional right-wing parties, Bolsonaro has denied any responsibility for the “spontaneous rallies,” while at the same time his media team tacitly goads protesters. Bolsonaro himself made an appearance at the demonstrations, just as the pandemic was starting to spread in Brazil.

Tragicomedy

Between the time that the protests were called and their manifestation on March 15, Bolsonaro spent three days in the United States meeting with Donald Trump and his team at Mar-a-Lago. Returning to Brazil on the eve of the demonstrations, a large part of Bolsonaro’s accompanying staff tested positive for COVID-19, raising suspicions that Bolsonaro himself had also been infected.

In a scene straight out of the Three Stooges, Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president’s son and federal deputy responsible for foreign relations in the House of Representatives, informed Fox News that Bolsonaro Senior had indeed tested positive — a claim he would later deny, further stoking international apprehension over Bolsonaro’s erratic behavior.

Bolsonaro may indeed have gone straight to the March 15 demonstration with the knowledge that he was infected, engaging in physical contact with the demonstrators who, be it for fear of the pandemic or Bolsonaro’s waning popular appeal, were far below the number expected.

All the while, Bolsonaro has been escalating tensions with right-wing governors — and hypothetical allies — like São Paulo’s João Doria Jr and Rio de Janeiro’s Wilson Witzel. Both heads of state government have defied Bolsonaro’s wishes and sought to implement containment measures and restrict circulation.

The conflict between the federal and state governments has in fact been building since before the pandemic outbreak. The current federal administration maintains close ties with the country’s military police, a hangover from the military dictatorship (1964–85). Those law enforcement sectors have recently begun mutinying against state governments with the assistance of local militias — mafia-like organizations comprised of former and active military personnel. The rebelling military police even went so far as to make an attempt on the life of federal senator Cid Gomes, brother of Ciro Gomes who took third place in the 2018 presidential elections.

The combined economic shock of March 9 and the pandemic shock of March 17 constitute a double-blow to Bolsonaro’s grip on power, forcing all the president’s fragilities and lies out into the open for all to see. Like what Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has called “the shock of the real,” an event has occurred in Brazil that finally threatens to destabilize Bolsonaro and the narrative he has spun.

A Classe Média

The pandemic has caused perhaps the most outrage among the so-called traditional urban middle class, who have had their means of travel curtailed and also felt the immediate effects of falling stock prices. These are not the emergent middle classes of the Workers’ Party (PT) years, but rather those most opposed to the PT’s redistributive reforms — that is, the core group of Bolsonaro faithfuls.

This group has rarely been affected by the country’s worst crises. Their support for Bolsonaro stems from their belief that a “strong,” right-wing government may be capable of repeating the country’s “economic miracle” of the 1970s — a “miracle” that in reality sent Brazil into a two-decades-long economic crisis.

In contrast to the United States, where the term “middle class” is a category so stretched as to include even what is elsewhere understood as the working class, in Brazil as in much of Latin America, the middle class refers exclusively to professionals, small and mid-sized business owners, public officials, etc. They are by and large white descendants of Europeans, Christian Arabs, or Asians who arrived in Brazil in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lending the country’s class composition a powerful racial character.

Breaking Point

In the midst of this crisis, Bolsonaro’s approval ratings are plummeting, and calls for his impeachment are emerging. The Brazilian edition of the daily newspaper El País was the first media outlet to register the enormous disapproval ratings for Bolsonaro’s handling of the pandemic, the overall rejection of his administration, and the mounting support for impeachment (today at a stalemate, with roughly 45 percent of those answering the survey in favor).

Pots are clanging even in middle-class neighborhoods, from Rio de Janeiro’s Ipanema, to Águas Claras in Brasilia, or Higienópolis and Pinheiros in São Paulo, speaking volumes to this growing discontent.

The health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, an inconspicuous man of the Right connected to private health insurers, announced that under the stress of the pandemic the Brazilian health system would collapse in April, and called for complete isolation measures to limit contagion. Bolsonaro, apparently trying to calm the electorate, instead undermined the minister’s warnings about the seriousness of the pandemic, and has referred to the virus as a “little flu.”

Flanked by cabinet ministers, with Finance Minister Paulo Guedes — a former collaborator in the Pinochet dictatorship — front and center, Bolsonaro’s words have done little to calm growing anxiety.

As all this is happening, governors from the left and right of the political spectrum are trying to take matters into their own hands. Even leading right-wing figures like João Doria Jr have drawn the ire of Bolsonaro, who accuses him of unnecessarily shuttering businesses and enforcing pointless isolation measures. Still, these and other actions are coming late after extended federal heel-dragging.

Brazil’s Social Apartheid

Most at risk of infection in Brazil are doubtless the domestic workers serving in the houses of the country’s elite. This means that although the virus has not yet hit the favelas and poorest neighborhoods with full force, it is only a matter of time before it does. When that happens, the country will be facing a large-scale humanitarian crisis.

The economic crisis that is now hitting the traditional middle class has been bearing down on the working class for years. They have been suffering austerity and declining incomes, as well as state-sponsored repression and militia violence. Left-wing parties, trade unions, and social movements have also become natural targets.

It is against this backdrop that impeachment proceedings have been filed, several by left-wing parliamentarians connected to the left Socialism and Liberty Party’s (PSOL) MES tendency, while right-wing dissidents like federal deputy Alexandre Frota, a former ally of Bolsonaro, have filed similar proceedings.

Requests for impeachment are currently awaiting action from the president of the House of Representatives, although the formal legal process can be drawn out over months. All the same, a concrete emergency like the one facing Brazil can serve as grounds for an expedited process. And whatever ends up happening, the question remains of what to do the day after Bolsonaro.

Indeed, within the Brazilian left there is some skepticism about what impeachment might mean in practical terms, with inevitable delays involved in the proceedings and the likelihood that Bolsonaro’s vice-president, Hamilton Mourão, would assume the presidency. Mourão is an ultraconservative military general, albeit completely foreign to the radical anti-science groups that surround the current president.

In truth, the seemingly simplest route — governors and the National Congress taking action in the power vacuum left by Bolsonaro’s presidential negligence — is also the strategy that meets headlong with Bolsonaro’s strongest opposition.

The crisis in Brazil is now so deep that the entire political class feels itself obliged to take an explicit position in relation to Bolsonaro. Instead, it should be coordinating emergency measures for when the health crisis hits, especially given the critical days already lost. Bolsonaro is not just proving a hindrance to necessary emergency measures; he is absorbing all the political gravity and pushing the conflict towards what will be, sooner or later, a fatal battle.

As the economic scenario continues to worsen, Eduardo Bolsonaro has provoked a needless diplomatic conflict with China — Brazil’s principle commercial partner by accusing China of being responsible for spreading the virus. The Chinese ambassador in turn has uncharacteristically chastised the Bolsonaro administration. Everywhere one looks, Bolsonaro Senior is running out of allies.

Ironically, at the same time that Bolsonaro, in his characteristically deranged manner, is seeking to downplay the effects of the pandemic, he is also testing the waters to see if he can implement a State of Siege order. The measure has already been challenged by the powerful Brazilian Bar Association, whose president is son of one of the military dictatorship’s disappeared political dissidents.

Failing to take the necessary health measures, Bolsonaro has set his sights on a regime change that would award him full control of the country. And like it or not, while Brazil may attempt in the interim to implement emergency measures against the wishes of the executive, it is only a matter of time before the final confrontation.

Impeachment proceedings may lead to fatal delays in a situation where time is of the essence, but there are other possible avenues: Bolsonaro could be stripped of office for committing election fraud, reviving charges from the 2018 elections in which Bolsonaro was implicated in the illegal dissemination of mass quantities of WhatsApp messages. Led by Bolsonaro’s opponents and even the mainstream media, momentum has been building over the last two years to investigate a systemic misinformation campaign that played a large part in Bolsonaro’s victory. If successful, those proceedings would lead to the annulment of the 2018 election results and produce either a call to direct popular elections in 2020, or indirect elections to be decided by the Congress in 2021.

Brazil’s illusions are quickly falling away. With this pandemic, the authorities are already predicting that Brazil could suffer a spike of cases as extreme as Italy’s. In addition to that, Brazil is experiencing the mega-devaluation of the national currency and commodity prices, coupled with insufficient and diminishing labor protections for an enormous working class that simply cannot afford not to work and lacks the kind of welfare provisions Europeans enjoy.

With the Brazilian health care system forecast to collapse in April, the stage is set for the nation’s most dramatic political crisis yet. Social movements, trade unions, and parties of the Left have no choice but to adhere to an emergency program that goes against years of austerity in the name of saving lives. That program is indeed possible, but requires the removal of Bolsonaro as the first step.

Following Bolsonaro’s statement on March 24, in which the president doubled down on his negationist stance while attacking governors, parliamentarians, and pubic figures for taking the most basic defensive measures against the pandemic, one thing has become clear: Brazil is looking into the abyss. According to a recently leaked intelligence report, published by the Intercept, the death count for COVID-19 in Brazil could reach the thousands in a matter of days. The kind of emergency economic and social program that Brazil desperately needs cannot go forward until Bolsonaro is removed from office.

As bad as the Brazilian situation is, we should recall the lesson from The Tempest: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”