Brazil: Bolsonaro has Covid, Opposition is Fragmented

Video Thumbnailhttps://vimeo.com/437678658 President Bolsonaro, after taking a Trump like stance minimizing the pandemic in spite of the soaring rate of infections, is now infected himself. His polling numbers are down but the opposition is fragmented says Lorena Barberia on theAnalysis.news podcast with Paul Jay.

President Bolsonaro, after taking a Trump like stance minimizing the pandemic in spite of the soaring rate of infections, is now infected himself. His polling numbers are down but the opposition is fragmented says Lorena Barberia on theAnalysis.news podcast with Paul Jay.

Paul Jay
Hi, I’m Paul Jay and this is theAnalysis.news podcast. This episode is produced in cooperation with Other News, Voices Against the Tide.

I’ve always thought that one country that could decide the fate of the world is Brazil. It’s the eighth largest economy in the world. And in terms of physical size, a population of 210 million people, natural resources, an advanced industrial economy, a politicized working-class, extreme wealth inequality, a democratic mass movement, and hard geographically to push around by the big powers. Brazil could have, and maybe still will give rise to a progressive popular government that could shake not only South America but the world.

I always thought that Lula and Dilma Rousseff, PT, would fall. That had compromised, more than necessary, with international finance capital, and that while life did get better for the poor, the transformation was not as dramatic as people had hoped for or expected.

Then came the extreme right-wing president and religious fanatic Bolsonaro, an ally of Trump and Steve Bannon, and who, like Trump, was a pandemic denier. Brazil is one of the worst hotspots for COVID in the world after Bolsonaro refused to take it seriously. Well, President Bolsonaro was just diagnosed as having contracted COVID-19 and is reported to be drinking hydroxyl chloroquine, which most doctors say won’t help and might kill him.

What happens in Brazil matters to the whole world, and not only because the Amazon is the lungs of the earth, the further destruction Bolsonaro’s government to the Amazon is adding to the coming climate catastrophe.

Now joining us from San Paolo, Brazil, is Lorena Barberia. She’s a professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of San Pablo, and she’s been an associate researcher at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard. She’s now also the scientific coordinator of the Solidarity Research Network for public policies in society, an inter-faculty initiative to study the covered pandemic and save lives in Brazil.

Thank you for joining me.

Lorena Barberia
Thank you, thank you very much.

Paul Jay
So, Lorena, give us a quick update on where things are at with COVID. Is it as out of control as it seemed to have been the last few weeks?

Lorena Barberia
Yes, unfortunately, yes. We had the first cases diagnosed in February and we had the first deaths in early March. And since then, we’ve seen growing, growing escalation and spread of COVID cases throughout the country. We have the second highest deaths, only second to the United States and also the second highest amount of infections in the world, so the situation is very critical.

Paul Jay
Now, we know that Bolsonaro, as I said in the introduction, was more or less a Trump-like climate and pandemic denier, perhaps, even more, a pandemic denier than Trump. Now that he’s been diagnosed with COVID, how is that affected public perception of him and the whole issue?

Lorena Barberia
Well, I think right now we’re still trying to see what’s going to happen with him, correct because he was only diagnosed yesterday and he claims that he has just minor symptoms. And so I think kind of, unfortunately, that part of the problem is throughout the pandemic including this most recent couple of days, is that the focus is on him and what’s happening with him and what he believes and what he’s doing, and at the same time, we keep getting we have a really poor situation on the ground across Brazil. So he continues to, kind of like a magnet, attract to attention to him and, his whatever is going on with him and, his health, instead of us directing an initiative to coordinate it and try to figure out how to lower the number of infections and save more lives on the ground.

Paul Jay
Obviously, the pandemic is not affecting everybody equally. And large numbers of people in Brazil live in situations where they’re on top of each other. I was in Brazil, I guess, 15 years ago and saw this myself. Many workers who work even in the automobile plants live in favela type situations, (“a favela is a type of low-income slum neighborhood in Brazil that has experienced historical governmental neglect as well”), and where people are very closely next to other people. How much are these areas getting ravaged and what percentage of the population lives in that kind of situation?

Lorena Barberia
So one of the things that I think is really important to remember is that as the government responded, as the state governments responded because the federal government didn’t adopt containment policies, those policies were adopted by state governments, but they never in rare occasions did states decide to close industry or to close even construction. So we have to remember kind of one of the tragic things if we start thinking about places where the virus transmits and there’s a large risk of transmission is in workplaces, correct. And in many of those situations like that, like construction, these are sites where it’s very difficult for you to do that work socially distancing, wearing masks, there’s frequently no water inside of those places to wash yourself. So in one of the things that’s important is workplaces are a high place of risk and also where people live and also the way that people get from work to home, because in cities like Sao Paulo, the poor, the average amount of hours that are spent in public transportation, which is also dense and crowded, is about two hours per day, at least on average.

So there’s there’s all kinds of different parts of a life of a poor person from where they live, which is usually in a very densely populated community to get to work, which is also in a very densely restricted bus or in the metro. And then once they get to work if especially if they were in informal work, or if we think about activities like construction or other types of activities, those were never closed. So we had since the onset of the pandemic, very unequal conditions where there were some people who could stay home and work from home. And there were large proportions of the population who really didn’t have that protection and didn’t have, neither at home because they lived with many people in and they’re very close to other households, and when they get on the bus or when they get to work, there are also conditions that are not protecting them from contamination. So increasingly, what we’re seeing is that the highest number of cases and the highest number of deaths are starting to move away from people who are traveling abroad and people who contracted the disease during a trip, and increasingly, what we’re starting to see in April and May and in June is that poorer and poorer parts of the population that weren’t able to socially distance and that was still really even, despite all of the activities in place, was still largely outside and participating in their regular livelihoods. Those are the populations that we’re starting to see higher infection rates in those groups.

Paul Jay
What we’re reading here is that large sections of the poor voted for Bolsonaro. Why did they? Because my understanding is life did get somewhat better under the PT government that Lula resists.

And it sounds like the disease is just getting started really amongst the poor. If it’s moving in just the last couple of months, then it’s likely it’s going to get worse before it gets better. How do you think this is going to affect politics? And where is Bolsonaro now in terms of like opinion polls? Does this mean there could be a revival or is there any revival of the PT? And my understanding is Lula’s out of jail. But does he have any restrictions on his political movement? Is he able to retake the public stage?

Lorena Barberia
Bolsonaro made a very strategic calculation. He decided not to respond and not to lead the charge on leading the federal coordination and trying to identify that he was responsible for the pandemic, and he shifted the blame to the governors and to the mayors and said ‘they’re in charge, they’re the ones that are going to have to solve the problem’ because he wanted to absolve himself from knowing that he was going into a situation that was very difficult and I think he tried to politically position himself to save or to take the burden of what would happen with the pandemic off of his shoulders and tried to shift the blame to the governors and to the mayors.

What’s happened is, though, that unfortunately there hasn’t been as much of strong, cohesive opposition to Bolsonaro or to quit criticizing what’s not working because it has become a very uncoordinated, fragmented response across Brazil, where everyone is fighting with everyone else at the local level. So mayors are suing governors so that they can see, mayors along with Bolsonaro, are suing governors because they want to follow both of those policies and not follow. If a governor adopts stricter policies. Governors have different views and different governors in nearby states are loosening restrictions while another one is trying to tighten restrictions. So there’s kind of ensued this convoluted picture on the ground because everyone is leading a different fight in trying to kind of articulate a different strategy. And the problem with that is that there’s not an organized opposition that has a coherent critique that is united and very strong.

And I can say, for example, here in Sao Paolo, the governor supported Bolsonaro and was an ally of Bolsonaro in the election, João Doria. Today, he is no longer an ally of the Bolsonaro administration, but he’s and he was at the beginning very critical of Bolsonaro. But over time, he’s diminished his critiques. And he’s emphasized more that he’s trying to work with the federal government to secure resources for hospitals, for testing, for all the things that need to happen to fight the pandemic. So he’s softened his tone as an opposition and as a critic, as someone who was criticizing the president. And then so on one hand, people who are strong and close to Bolsonaro like João Doria, who had broken away and criticizing and becoming more vocal, have softened. And the people liked the PT, in Sao Paolo, who could be more critical. And if you think about Fernando Haddad who was the opponents to Bolsonaro and was the second runner up in the election, he has also not been very strong and as an opposition and as someone who’s making a very vocal critique of the president or leading a charge. So the PT hasn’t mobilized and been as effective, nor have any other political parties, and that’s the problem.

Paul Jay
Well, what’s holding the party back? And where’s Lula in all this?

Lorena Barberia
Lula’s at home? Right. Like many of us, he’s active, he’s online, he’s been doing a lot of Zoom meetings and trying to mobilize and work within the PT and work with communities. But I think the problem is that the PT is in a very difficult situation, it’s in a fragile situation and it’s very isolated from other political parties in terms of building up coherent in its opposition to what’s going on.

We have to remember that that’s the reason Bolsonaro won. We had so many different political parties that couldn’t- each one wanted to run. They didn’t want until the very, very end of the election, they didn’t want to endorse other candidates. They were very afraid of endorsing, for them that year, they hesitated. And so that’s cost us a lot because there’s still a lot of that-

Paul Jay
That was the PT candidate.

Lorena Barberia
Yes. Another was the PT candidate and the other candidates that were in the elections in the first run off of the election when they lost, they were very hesitant to automatically endorse Fernando Haddad when it became clear he was going to run against Bolsonaro. And so I think that that’s a signal and that’s something that we’re still living with today. We haven’t effectively constructed a coordinated opposition to the president. There’s been more like a ground movement that said we’re 70% where the 70% who oppose Bolsonaro. But it’s different to, say, 70% of voters opposed Bolsonaro than to be a strong organized political party that is opposing the president and really combating coherently what’s wrong with Bolsonaro’s response to the pandemic that we’re not seeing as much.

Paul Jay
The Catholic Church in Brazil, what is its attitude to Bolsonaro? Bolsonaro is connected to Bannon and Bannon is connected to the very right-wing of the Catholic Church and Cardinal Burke, who are very against Pope Francis. Where’s the leadership of the Catholic Church in Brazil?

Lorena Barberia
Bolsonaro with the religious climate is really important. We have to remember he, from the beginning, when they tried to close the essential services, one of the things that he was really quick and strategic is to say praying was an essential service at churches or in social essential service. And that’s the part where on the ground, even though the church has a very complicated relationship with Bolsonaro, that’s a really on the ground decision that a lot of churches have not been very strong about how these religious services than to be organized.

Are they going to do in-person services or not? And so Bolsonaro that that’s the kind of thing that Bolsonaro was very good at using to say they’re on my side. If somebody decides to hold mass on Sunday or if somebody decides to convene and want to pray in the church, he uses that as evidence to say that he’s this is signs and that’s what he’s fighting for and the policies he’s proposing, they’re supported on the ground, even though the church leadership doesn’t perhaps in the Catholic Church, agree with his policies. And so it’s a very complicated situation because he is very intelligent and manipulative of that tension and of trying to kind of use that to make voters uncomfortable or to make voters mistrust church officials, when they don’t side with them because it says, look, ‘I’m a good guy I’m the one that wants to keep us free.’ And that’s an example of kind of how he’s very combative, even with religious authorities. He’s launched critiques and he’s been very effective in appealing to people using kind of those very simple examples of practices that you could do, like going to church. That means that you and he agree and you have the same viewpoints and you have the same priorities.

Paul Jay
Are people wearing masks?

Lorena Barberia
So in the survey’s most of the people, when you ask in a survey if they’re wearing masks, people are psyched that they’re wearing masks on the ground. I can tell you that when you’re out and you’re in a supermarket or appearing somewhere observing, there is a lot of problems with mask use. First of all, because I think it’s been so complicated, even if you think about going back to Bolsonaro when Bolsonaro now appears with a mask, like yesterday when he had already tested positive for COVID and he was giving an interview to journalists explaining of his positive test results, after answering a couple of questions as he was walking away, he took off his mask and continued to speak to the reporters.

He’s done that since he started wearing masks. So it’s an example of something very visible, but very confusing to people who are watching him on television and watching how he acts. He’s not clear, like when I use the mask, what is all that I need to do? I put it on, I don’t take it off for a couple of hours, I need to wash it as immediately before I get home or when once I arrive at home, there’s not been that type of clarity of message about something so simple as a mask. So even if people who want to help protect others and use a mask, often what we find in the streets is people are so confused, they don’t understand really what can I do and cannot do with a mask. And that’s because even on that issue, he has managed to confuse people about mask use and what is it and why you should do it and how you should abide by a mask policy when you have your mask on.

Paul Jay
How has the pandemic affected the indigenous population there?

Lorena Barberia
Unfortunately, what we’re seeing is, we’ve been monitoring a lot. We’re looking at death rates and infection rates by state and I have to tell you that when we started to see the numbers in the Amazon, we couldn’t understand the data at first, we were really troubled. We have to remember that we started to see high death rates in the Amazon in May, and it’s very hard to understand in late April and early May, how quickly the Amazon as a state, and in Manaus, the health system began to collapse, how quickly the pandemic reached such a remote area of Brazil, so it’s become more stabilized in the Amazon.

But now what we’re seeing is the indigenous communities who are in what we call, ‘The western part of Brazil’, now, those indigenous communities are starting to become much more infected, and we’re seeing, again, really high rates of death in those communities. And it’s a very, very big source of concern because yesterday, in addition to everything, Bolsonaro vetoed, while being diagnosed with COVID he vetoed legislation that was being proposed in the Chamber of Deputies deputies to protect the indigenous population and increase funding for health care for indigenous populations. He had time in the middle of recovering from COVID yesterday to veto legislation to protect indigenous people’s health.

Paul Jay
How is that affecting the actual Amazon itself? The trees, which I said earlier, the lungs of the earth in terms of the coming climate? I shouldn’t say coming. We’re already here, but it’s going to get worse, the climate catastrophe, the Amazon, certainly one of those critical places on Earth. How has Bolsonaro’s policies affected the culture of, the natural culture of the Amazon? And has it gotten any better or worse in the times of pandemic?

Lorena Barberia
In the presidential cabinet meeting was taped and was eventually televised nationally for all of Brazil after the minister of justice was fired. We got to see exactly what the presidential cabinet meetings are like. And one of the things that were raised in that meeting was exactly that; it was a meeting that was taped in March, so we’re already in the middle of everything that’s going on, and they were talking about how advantageous it was for them that we would be focused on the pandemic and that they could then advance the policies that we as a society or different groups in opposition were opposed to including the Amazon. So it was specifically cited as an opportunity. This is what we can do and we have evidence from that media that that’s a policy that’s endorsed by the government and that several ministers agree with those policies, that we are going to advance an agenda in indigenous territories and the Amazon to advance development in against agreements, and we’re going to do that because no one’s going to be paying attention because they’ll be paying attention to the pandemic.

Paul Jay
And do they not believe there’s such a thing as climate change and the greenhouse effect? I mean, they just don’t believe it or it doesn’t matter because it’s about the money?

Lorena Barberia
I think they don’t believe it. In general, it’s the same thing as when Bolsonaro talks about the Coronavirus. There’s a sense of a kind of fatality of like, this is the way things are and some people have to die of COVID. This is what he said. You know, he’s on record saying ‘I’m not the Messiah, even though my middle name is Messiah, but I’m not the Messiah and some of us are going to have to die, and that’s life, I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is’. So he has kind of a very fatalistic view, and then climate is the same thing. He’s very skeptical. He doesn’t believe in the scientific explanations and he understands very clearly, and what he knows that he entered office is to bring economic growth and so he is still fixated on that.

He understands that if he’s going to be re-elected, the economy has to improve. And so his concern even right now in the middle of the pandemic, where we are the top second country of deaths, he’s announcing labor reforms because we have to get the economic growth back on the board.

Paul Jay
And by labor reforms, you mean weakening unions?

Lorena Barberia
Yes, so he wants to get back to his reform agenda so the economy can be reignited. That’s what his concern is right now, and that’s the agenda he’s trying to put forward. In the middle instead of thinking about a lot of things that we’ve talked about during the pandemic expanding cash strapped for programs, thinking about all kinds of restructuring that’s going on of workers and how we can help to provide unemployment benefits and reduced hours and thinking about what types of arrangements companies can make to keep workers higher, and especially the workers that can’t work from home. Those kinds of reforms or those kinds of social programs are not the priority right now. What we’re seeing is instead we’re going to go back to the reforms that he started when he entered office, reforms to reduce workers’ rights.

Paul Jay
You were talking about how fractured the progressives are in Sao Paolo. Do you see something changing throughout Brazil right now, do see that changing? There has to be some kind of popular front is there not a force that can organize that?

Lorena Barberia
I’m still optimistic, unfortunately, I think as an opposition force, we haven’t been coherent and strong in terms of seeing political parties unite and be an effective opposition. But the institutions, in general, are still working and are still not in agreement and not following Bolsonaro wants to do.

We have, the justice, the Supreme Court, many instances of the judiciary, the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, and even, if what we were talking about with the governors and then the mayors, the majority of governors and mayors are implementing policies that are trying to predict social distancing, trying to save lives, trying to question what is incorrect about Brazil’s response and wanting to do the right thing. So it’s not all as gloomy, and the one thing that I think is important is that we also have a really important public health system that is a well-run or well-organized system in place from very small communities to the national level. We have the source, right. And so if we see the deaths that are in Brazil today and even though we know there is testing, there are high amounts of mortality there that are taking place throughout Brazil right now. But that situation is nothing to what it would be without a public health system in Brazil. We have so much to thank that there’s services in place that people have a place to get treated, people have a place, they have hospitals. That’s something that’s important to understand, and it’s an institution that is is really important right now to give us hope. So even though the opposition is not as effectively mobilized, at least we have the institutions that are working better than we should always expect that the opposition is fragile. The institutions are still there and they’re working.

Paul Jay
And at the level of state governments, are there any measures being taken to protect the Amazon?

Lorena Barberia
So at the level of, one of the things that’s very hard is we have to remember in the state, especially, we’re talking about Amazon as the state of where there’s a number of states where the Amazon forest passes, but if we can use that as an example, the policies that were passed to protect or to take more assertive measures were passed at the state level within the context that there’s a very large city in Manaus, which had a very strong epicenter of the pandemic. And so kind of though, from the beginning, we have this kind of strange situation that Manaus did not undertake really strong, stringent measures. And the only measures that were in place for the same measures that the governor of Amazonas was implementing. And Manaus didn’t make specific extra or additional policies to protect or to try to limit the pandemic from Manaus spreading into the rest of the more rural and poor parts of the state.

And so I think that’s part of why one of the problems is that, in order for this to work correctly, you need mayors and governors to mobilize and to work together and large cities where there’s a large mass of the population. Those are the places where we needed that response to be stronger and for there to be additional restrictions and in a lot of states that didn’t happen. The policies that were in place that applied in rural areas were expected to work the same in urban, dense, poor areas, and we know that the policies don’t work the same in those environments.

Paul Jay
Thanks very much for joining us. Thank you, Lorena.

Lorena Barberia
Thank you. Thank you very much.

Lorena Barberia
Thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast.

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