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Weekly Report - 14 May 2020 (WR-20-19)

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BRAZIL: Debate over isolation persists

For two months now, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro has maintained that containing the coronavirus (Covid-19) cannot come at the cost of Brazilians’ jobs. He has accompanied this false dichotomy between saving lives and protecting livelihoods with the consistent downplaying of the disease’s health risks and disrespect for those whose lives it has claimed. Coronavirus infections have continued to rise rapidly in recent days, and Brazil overtook first Germany, and then France, to become the country with the sixth highest number of confirmed cases globally on 13 May, with 188,974 cases and 13,149 deaths. But Bolsonaro has not changed his tune.

President Bolsonaro’s reaction to the pandemic has driven an ever-growing rift between the federal executive and state governments, with negative impacts on the latter’s efforts to tackle Covid-19. This week, Bolsonaro delayed sanctioning a law which would distribute R$60bn (US$10.19bn) to state and municipal governments to help their healthcare systems and make up revenue lost as a result of the pandemic. The bill, modified by the senate after an initial version tabled by the chamber of deputies was slammed by the government, was approved in congress on 6 May.

On 11 May, Bolsonaro issued a decree including gyms, beauticians, and barbers in the list of essential services allowed to remain open during the pandemic, even as an increasing number of states and cities have extended quarantine measures and imposed strict lockdowns. A majority of Brazil’s 27 state governors have publicly said they will ignore this decree, citing their commitment to science-backed efforts to curb the outbreak, and a supreme court (STF) ruling which gives local, not federal, authorities the final say on isolation measures [WR-20-15]. Nevertheless, the decree exacerbates the confusion that reigns in Brazil over what is and is not permitted for the population as a whole, and therefore undermines efforts to bring the coronavirus outbreak under control.

Despite governors pushing forward with what measures they deem necessary and appropriate to the severity of the outbreak in their state, local health authorities have been demanding that the federal health ministry adopt a clear position on the matter. With less than a month in the post, Health Minister Nelson Teich has been struggling to strike a balance between delivering a robust response to the pandemic and not upsetting Bolsonaro (Teich’s predecessor, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, had become more popular than the president whom he publicly contradicted on isolation measures before he was fired [WR-20-16]).

“This discussion on a strategy does not mean defining whether you are going to isolate or relax [isolation],” Teich said on 11 May, arguing that the debate around isolation measures has become unhelpfully polarised. A 13 May press conference during which he was due to announce national directives on isolation was cancelled at the last minute, after the health ministry failed to reach a consensus on the issue with the councils representing the state and municipal health services (Conass and Conasems respectively).

Yet Teich’s ambivalence has not stopped him from being attacked on ‘bolsonarista’ networks and snubbed by the president. Questioned by journalists on 11 May about the presidential decree expanding essential services, issued that same day, Teich looked taken aback, seemingly learning about its existence from the press. He then said the issue concerned the president and the economy ministry, not the health authorities. On 13 May, one day after Teich had cautioned about taking chloroquine, mooted as a possible treatment to coronavirus although scientific evidence of its effectiveness is lacking, Bolsonaro argued that the drug should still be used on Covid-19 patients. “It might work, it might not work,” he said.

Distraction tactics

There are those who argue that Bolsonaro’s mismanagement of the public health emergency serves the purpose of diverting attention away from his other problems. He is at the centre of an unfolding political scandal, relating to allegations of undue meddling in the federal police, which could lead to impeachment proceedings. These will be more likely if the inevitable economic downturn erodes his support. The federal government slashed its GDP projections for 2020 to -4.7% on 13 May – and this remains one of the more optimistic forecasts. The unemployment rate edged up to 12.2% in the first quarter of 2020, and a 39% monthly increase in applications for unemployment benefits in April portends a surge in job losses.

Bolsonaro has already sought to lay the blame for the looming recession at the feet of state governors, as the government has faced criticisms over its response on the economic front also. Notably, the distribution of a R$600 basic income to informal workers is stalled, with a reported 17m people still awaiting the emergency handout after glitches in the application process. Bolsonaro dismissed them as a “noisy minority” on 7 May.

Bolsonaro’s approval ratings

A poll released on 12 May shows that President Bolsonaro retains a solid support base, despite rising disapproval ratings. The CNT/MDA poll, one of the few in Brazil that presents the presidential approval ratings in binary terms, found that Bolsonaro has a personal approval rating of 39.2% and disapproval rating of 55.2%. The federal government’s response to the pandemic is viewed positively by 51.7% and negatively by 42.3%, although 67.3% of respondents support blanket isolation measures. State governments are deemed to be doing better: disapproval of their response to the pandemic stands at 26.8%, and approval at 69.2%.