The Covid-19 pandemic in Brazil has been a staggering human tragedy. The blame must be put squarely on government at all levels—but particularly, the federal government of president Jair Bolsonaro. In little more than 14 months, 455,000 Brazilians have died from the virus—second only to the US—while more than 15 million have been infected. In countries with more than 100 million people, Brazil has the highest number of deaths per capita. 

As in most countries, the victims of coronavirus in Brazil have been disproportionately the poor and black. Many live on the urban periphery of the large cities. They have been forced to continue working with little government assistance and depend on an understaffed and under-resourced public health system. 

The second wave of the pandemic between March and May took a record number of lives. This was fuelled by inequality, a collapse of the public health system, the delayed access to vaccines and the criminal negligence of federal and state governments. The 12 May was the first day in 55 days that the average number of daily coronavirus dropped below 2,000. Yet scientists warn that a third devastating wave will likely hit Brazil in the next few months.

Bolsonaro was elected in 2018 on a fake anti-corruption platform, combined with free market economics and reactionary social and cultural policies. He has, by all accounts, been the worst political leader in the world regarding the pandemic.

Bolsonaro has invented many false battles during this pandemic—snake-oils against vaccines, freedom against masks, magic and superstition against science. In the field of facts, reason and humanity, he has lost all of them. Yet his ultra right regime still has considerable staying power. It has a following of around 25 to 30 percent of the population. And it is backed by key sectors of big business, the evangelical churches, the armed forces, police and media. 

With this support, the Bolsonaro government has gone from bad to worse in its handling of the pandemic. In March 2020, the president said the virus was no more than a “little flu”. It’s a position he has maintained until now, as body are stacked up in temporary containers for lack of proper funeral services. From the beginning of the pandemic until now, he has called critics “sissies” for worrying about the massive loss of life. He, his family and supporters regularly cause dangerous public gatherings and rarely use masks. 

Bolsonaro has promoted a range of bizarre conspiracy theories about the origins of the virus, its nature and effects. On social media, he consistently posts such nonsense to rile up his hardcore base of supporters. His three sons have organised a “hate cabinet”, which uses social media to defend the president and attack opponents. Two are elected federal officials, one is a city councillor in Rio de Janeiro. All three face charges of corruption. 

Bolsonaro, his followers and most state and city governments have largely succeeded in sabotaging the only useful measures against the spread of the virus. These are social isolation, testing, quarantines, lockdowns and the use of masks. They regularly mock and slander the World Health Organisation (WHO), professional medical associations and scientists. Cuts to scientific research in the universities have severely undermined efforts to deal with the pandemic. 

Governments at all levels failed to implement mass testing schemes nor any lockdowns apart from the efforts of a few small cities. Quarantine restrictions have been haphazard and limited. Just when the quarantine seemed to be working at reducing infections, hospital internments and deaths, state and city governments removed restrictions. It resulted a few months later in massive increases in infections. New strains of the virus easily spread throughout Brazil as there have been no national or international travel restrictions. While some supermarkets and pharmacies take the temperature of customers, there are no similar arrangements for people arriving in Brazil by plane, bus or boat.

At various times during the pandemic, local hospitals began collapsing with patients dying in corridors or at home. Oxygen supplies ran out and other resources to treat victims in intensive care were used up because of poor planning by the federal health ministry. Shocking scenes of families dragging privately-bought oxygen cylinders to the hospitals to help loved ones were a daily occurrence on the television news. Bolsonaro and his followers’ attacks on China also delayed crucial hospital supplies, especially for the production of vaccines. 

Meanwhile, the government invested in inefficient and dangerous medications with no scientific support. Along with former US president Donald Trump and Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, Bolsonaro promoted a so-called “precocious treatment” for the virus. This cocktail of useless and dangerous drugs has been highly criticised not only by the WHO, but also by the vast majority of medical associations within Brazil. Even so, a minority of charlatan doctors who support the government have continued the use of such cocktails. They undermine social isolation measures and offer not only a false cure for the virus, but one with potentially dangerous side effects.

Early in the pandemic, the government ordered the army to produce huge stocks of HCQ for the cocktails, diverting resources that could have been sensibly used elsewhere. Yet, even after numerous international and national studies have shown that such drugs are inefficient and dangerous, he and his supporters continue to push such remedies.

There have been four different health ministers since the pandemic began in March last year. The first two resigned after refusing to back “precocious treatment”. The third, an army general with no medical experience, was finally forced out in March for his inept handling of the pandemic. The current minister had criticised such policies, but now toes the line of the government.

In fact, the Bolsonaro government has stacked ministries with more than 6,000 “yes-men”—almost always men—who are active or retired soldiers. In the ministry of health, 20 key positions are staffed by soldiers with no experience in healthcare. There are many more soldiers serving in the ministries than during the military dictatorship of 1964-1985. Small wonder that while the government pushed through cuts to public sector workers’ pensions and froze their wages in 2019, soldiers were granted higher salaries and better pensions.     

There have been some conflicts between individual members of the armed forces hierarchy and Bolsonaro—for example, the heads of the army, navy and airforce resigned in March.  But the institution remains one of his chief backers. Spurred on by the anti-democratic rhetoric of Bolsonaro and his hard-core supporters, numerous retired generals have made veiled threats about the necessity of military intervention. 

Government supporters regularly rally around slogans in demonstrations calling for military intervention and the sacking of supreme court judges who have been a thorn in Bolsonaro’s side. Bolsonaro and his ministers make a point of attending these reactionary rallies, sometimes hovering above in helicopters, other times arriving on horseback with cowboy hats and without masks. 

Under pressure from the Brazilian parliament, the government instituted a paltry “Emergency Auxiliary” of £88 a month per person in April 2020, which ended in December. It was used by over 68 million people in a country with a population of 200 million. A reduced auxiliary was introduced in March, but it has done little to halt the massive increase in poverty in the country that began before the pandemic. Unemployment is at record levels and efforts to restart the economy have been sunk by the failure to reduce the spread of the virus.

The international distribution of vaccines has unjustly favoured richer countries. But the purposely slow introduction of vaccines in Brazil is one more proof of the murderous politics of the Bolsonaro government. From the start, the government downplayed the necessity of vaccines, relying instead on the false remedies of “precocious treatment”. Bolsonaro himself has regularly mouthed an anti-vaccine rhetoric and his government stalled the production of vaccines by public health institutions in Brazil as well as purchases from international pharmaceutical companies. In November 2020, the president criticised the first production of vaccines in the country, in partnership with China, with racist slurs. Rampant anti-Chinese racism is a staple among Bolsonaro’s support base.

As of writing, less than 18 percent of the population have received the first dose of vaccines and only 9 percent the second dose. Lack of supplies to produce vaccines in Brazil and the delays in negotiating with international companies have made it unlikely that the majority of the population will be vaccinated by the end of 2022.

Given this dire situation, one might well ask about resistance to these policies. There have been significant mobilisations, but they have been sporadic and localised largely as a result of the fragmentation of the left and demoralisation with the Labour-type PT party’s turn to free market policies. 

It is first necessary to dispel myths about the centrist opposition to Bolsonaro. After supporting his presidential bid in 2018, significant numbers of ex-ministers, politicians, certain capitalists and the media have turned against the president. Even they cannot stomach the extent of Bolsonaro’s murderous politics and worry that the delayed vaccination program will sink the economy even further. Yet they are fair-weather friends whose opposition is hypocritical and unreliable. 

At various times throughout the pandemic, sections workers have taken significant street actions against government actions and for more assistance such as delivery application workers, health care professionals and public transport workers. On 13 May, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Brazil, demonstrations against police racism and violence, drew thousands in the largest cities. 

Yet there have been no sustained or generalised campaigns by the unions. Part of this is understandable. Many people were genuinely afraid to risk infection in street actions. We have lost many thousands of left wing activists to Covid-19.

But the main reason for the lack of opposition is the fragmented and demoralised state of the union movement and the left. Corruption scandals and the PT rightward shift led to the parliamentary coup d’etat, which removed president Dilma Rousseff in 2016. It alienated many supporters and resulted in Bolsonaro’s election win in 2018. Anti-labour laws have handcuffed the union movement.

The radical left, led by the PSOL party, has certainly won more support during the Bolsonaro government. It has led important struggles by homeless workers in the cities and anti-racist mobilisations. In 2018, it elected 10 federal deputies and in 2020 state and municipal elections significantly increased its elected members especially in key cities such as Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre. 

However, the truly mass workers’ party, the PT, has floundered. Many people now believe that the PT’s fortunes have reversed in the last few months with former president Lula announcing he will stand to be president. He was released from jail on trumped-up corruption charges and is now eligible to run again. Polls consistently show that he would beat Bolsonaro by a significant margin. 

Lula’s popularity reflects a sincere disgust by the majority of the population with Bolsonaro. But solely focusing on the presidential elections in 2022 masks key contradictions in the current political scene. Almost any politician would be better than Bolsonaro around the pandemic, but what about the free market politics adopted by the PT in its last government? Will Lula reverse the attacks on public and private sector workers? Will he continue to bend the knee to the financial sector as he did from 2003-2010? Will the historically most combative sections of the working class, led largely by the PT, force the party to rethink its adoption of free market politics. 

Despite opposition within PSOL, it is likely that there will be a popular front of the left and centre, led by Lula, against Bolsonaro in 2022. But we will only really turn the tide when we mobilise all sectors against system that created murderous monsters like Bolsonaro and his ilk.

  • Sean Purdy is an activist with the Socialism and Liberty Party in Brazil and a professor of history at the University of São Paulo