As you should be able to see from the graph above, about 55 days into the pandemic here, Brazil has not yet managed to bend the curve and is now registering the second-highest official daily total of deaths in the world. Needless to say, the actual number of daily deaths above the average is likely to be much higher but the data is difficult to obtain.
There are several reasons why Brazil’s efforts have been so ineffective in containing the virus so far, not least because the President, Jair Bolsonaro, parades around in a Trumpesque display of sound bites calling the virus the sniffles, sacking his health ministers and encouraging people to gather in protests where he can shake their hands and cough on them. In this appearance, reported by the Mail Online, there are some salutes which are frighteningly close to Naziesque but perhaps that’s how they always pray.
From the early days of the pandemic, Bolsonaro has been at odds with the state governors who have been trying to encourage social distancing in an effort to flatten the curve. He knows that the economic consequences of the virus are going to be significant in Brazil and he is setting himself up for a time after the pandemic when he can blame the recession on the political rivals whose measures he is now opposing.
The unfortunate immediate consequence of this is that many Brazilians, especially those on the right-wing who support Bolsonaro, are not taking the mitigation measures seriously and in some instances are deliberately trying to hinder local government efforts to slow the spread. It is estimated that only 48% are self-isolating but the target is 70%.
For example, as traffic on the streets increased as paulistas tired of staying at home, the Sao Paulo mayor, Bruno Covas attempted to implement a rule which would permit only cars with registrations ending in even numbers to be used on dates which had even numbers and cars with registrations ending in odd numbers could only be used on dates with odd numbers. The measure would effectively keep half of the motorists at home at any one time but the result was not effective and so they withdrew the measures after one week.
Covas says that Sao Paulo hospitals are at 90% capacity (91% yesterday) and could run out of space within two weeks. and so has taken the desperate measure of taking two bank holidays from June and November and moving them to tomorrow and Thursday with a third holiday proposed to be moved from July to next Monday, effectively creating a six-day holiday. He explained his reasoning by saying that yesterday Sao Paulo only saw 56% isolation and that the periods of highest isolation have been on holidays and at weekends. However, the immediate effect of this seems to be lost of paulistas heading to the beach for a long weekend, the state government did not co-ordinate any measures to prevent this mass exodus.
It is not only the covidiots that are breaking the isolation. It is very easy for white-collar workers like me to work from home and continue receiving my salary, but for those who worked in the restaurants and bars or shops that have been closed by the state governor, or those who were employed to clean them or the homes, schools, universities which are no longer employing as many cleaners, security guards or kitchen staff, then life is not quite a rosy.
Adults who find themselves unemployed and have a family income of less than the monthly minimum wage (approximately $500) can apply for emergency help from the government which is equivalent to just over $100 per month. So far, 50 million people, a quarter of the population and a half of the working population, have applied to receive the benefit.
The scheme has been administered online through an application but given that in 2016 only half the population was online and this was predicted to rise to 68% by the end of 2019, it is not surprising that large queues formed outside banks with people wanting to apply. Needless to say, the social distancing rules were not rigidly applied in these situations despite the best efforts of some of the staff.
For families in which the household income has been lost completely this emergency help is not going to go very far, even if they are in receipt of Bolsa Familiar (government benefit equivalent to family allowance). So, it is not surprising that hairdressers, barbers and beauty salons are inviting customers for illicit cuts, waxes and polishes. Even my local off licence (liquor store) only has the shutters half closed so that regular customers can top up their stocks. Bolsonaro declared hairdressers, beauty salons and, amazingly, gyms as essential services so in some cities they have already re-opened.
When I arrived in Brazil I was told that the country does not have hurricanes, earthquakes or volcanic eruptions, the only natural disaster, I was told, is the people. It certainly seems that, in the case of Covid-19, there are those who are struggling to isolate but there are also many who refuse to listen to science and prefer the platitudes of those who should know better.