Latin America in a post-Covid world
If there is one country on earth where the pandemic has been ill-managed, it is Brazil. The world’s leader of the ‘coronavirus-denial’ movement and right-wing populist candidate Jair Bolsonaro presided over this calamity which pushed 83.5% of the labour market in Brazil into a state of vulnerability.
Brazil is home to the world’s second-highest death toll behind the USA – 670,000 Brazilians were killed by the virus, and around 32,000 people are now living in the streets in a country where unemployment, and rising inflation at 12% per year, is hurting the poorest most and causing 33 million Brazilians to go hungry, 14 million more than two years ago.
The first case of Covid in the region was reported in Brazil on 26 February 2020, prompting governments to adopt a very uneven pattern of responses. In Brazil, Bolsonaro opted for indifference, denial and contempt for human lives. By April 2020, the country had the highest number of daily fatalities from the disease anywhere on the planet. Cleonice Gonçalves, a domestic worker who was forced to keep working at her employer’s home, was the first Covid casualty.
The worst pandemic response in the world
The president’s management of the pandemic triggered an unparalleled tragedy. Borrowing from the Trump playbook, Jair Bolsonaro consistently minimised the severity of the virus. Like Trump, he has been one of the world’s most vocal critics of the World Health Organisation while defying the organisation publicly. Bolsonaro opposed social distancing, the use of face masks as well as lockdowns, claimed vaccines were ineffective while asking that only the old and the vulnerable should stay at home – and everybody else should head back to work and education.
The pandemic further deepened the growing divide in Brazilian politics between supporters and critics of Bolsonaro. He clashed with federal officials, as well as state and local governments who implemented severe restrictions on mobility and economic activity.
His views were also opposed by his own health ministers – four of them succeeded one another in the first two years of the pandemic.
A living hell
As a result Brazil has been a living hell, the result of three factors that converged and reinforced one another.
First, inequalities – Brazil is one of the most unequal countries on earth, and inequalities have risen further during the pandemic. With rising unemployment, the pandemic hit the poorest the most, further deteriorating the country’s capacity to productively integrate the country’s poor in the formal economy. Black Brazilians, the poor and the unemployed were hit particularly hard. Access to health care is structurally divided along social and economic lines – in a country where public health was already stretched too thinly.
A study from PUC-Rio quantifies the disproportionate impact of Covid on vulnerable populations: among cohorts of severely affected individuals, 55% of Black and Brown Brazilians who contracted Covid died from complications, compared to only 38% of white people.
Those with no formal education experienced death rates up to three times higher (71.3%) than those that were college educated (22.5%). When taking education level and race together, the death rate of uneducated, Black Brazilians is as high as 80.35%, whereas college-educated, white people experience death rates as low as 19.65%.
Second, austerity – neoliberal reforms implemented since 2016 coupled with the adoption in the same year of a constitutional amendment that caps public spending for 20 years have led to significant underfunding of public services and increased labour precarity in a context of eroded social protection.
The third factor is Bolsonaro himself. Being a federal republic, state governments in Brazil have had considerable influence on their local pandemic responses, and actions taken on the ground were far more important than many realised.
In Brazil, the initial spread of the virus was mostly affected by patterns of socio economic vulnerability rather than age and prevalence of health risk factors.
States with a higher levels of socio economic vulnerability were able to expand hospital capacity, enact stringent Covid-19-related legislation, and increase physical distancing adherence in the population, although not sufficiently to prevent higher Covid-19 mortality during the initial phase of the epidemic compared with states with lower levels of vulnerability.
However, the absence of any coordinated response generated a lot of confusion which Bolsonaro used to justify his stance while promoting a questionable “Covid kit,” comprising a ‘cocktail of hydroxychloroquine and other drugs‘ with unproven health benefits and possibly fatal consequences – as several Brazilians died after taking it.
The result? The poor in Brazil have suffered from both the economic consequences of restrictions on mobility and activity imposed by individual states, and a higher risk of contamination.
Splashing the cash
When Covid hit, a poor recovery from the 2015-16 economic recession had already taken its toll, plunging the country into a fiscal crisis. The social protection network is made up of many overlapping programmes that ignore the diversity of the country’s workforce. Of the 20 programmes analysed by the UN, sixteen fully require the individual to have a formal employment contract in a country where 40% of workforce is informal. The most deprived workers are often left out of the network.
Key to this was Bolsa Família, the country’s acclaimed social protection programme which reduced extreme poverty in Brazil by as much as 25 per cent.
The programme was a trademark policy of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, ran for 18 years and was credited for expanding access to health, education while reducing infant mortality, maternal mortality and increased schooling.
The programme was terminated by Bolsonaro during the pandemic and replaced by Auxílio Brasil, a programme with slightly broader coverage (although it did not address the gaps in the coverage for the one it replaced) and, more importantly – no guaranteed funding. Many view Auxílio Brasil as a ploy to boost Bolsonaro’s popularity ahead of the forthcoming elections.
However, even with emergency policies it was estimated at least 26 million workers, or more than a quarter of Brazil’s economically active population did not have access to any compensation.
Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic marked a public transition from valuing certain kinds of lives as opposed to others, to a general contempt for human lives. He is to be charged for nine offences, including crime against humanity, charlatanism and malfeasance if he is defeated on October 30th.
But maybe more importantly, Brazilian people now have a choice – a responsibility. His fate lies in their hand.
* Nicolas Forsans: Professor of Management and MBA Director at the University of Essex, UK. Co-director of the Centre for Latin American & Caribbean Studies and a member of many Latin American societies and think tanks, Nicolas investigates the economic and societal challenges in the region generally, and in Colombia more specifically.
Latin America in a post-Covid world: A general contempt for human life in brazil.
Latin America in a post-Covid world: Street vendors during the pandemic.