As I write this article, Brazil has recorded more than 2 million cases of Covid-19, just behind the US total number of cases. Despite this already high number, every week the country identifies about 250 thousand new cases, showing the pandemic is far from its end.
Recently, a Brazilian Supreme Court Minister said during live on social media that President Jair Bolsonaro and his government are responsible for the “genocide” of Brazilians, implying that the almost 80 thousand people dead in the country are due to Bolsonaro’s administration’s failings during the pandemic.
The Brazilian Left, well-represented by this talkative Minister, accuse Bolsonaro of neglecting the health of our citizens to maintain our economic stability (for the first-time in their history these left-wing politicians seem to be pro-life). And this accusation might seem to be true at first glance, since Bolsonaro openly criticises the severe quarantine defended by the so-called “experts”. He often goes out for walks, eats at street markets and talks to supporters every morning in his house entrance before working. His posture is of someone that is not upset at all with the pandemic.
However, the economy in Brazil is by no means better than our health situation. According to official research by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), 17.6 per cent of Brazilian companies closed their doors permanently due to Covid-19, and 34.6 per cent reduced the number of employees for the same reason.
In light of that, one could ask what the President and his government have been doing all this time, since Brazil was not able to avoid a massive number of deaths nor a massive number of companies closing and firing people. It is a good question and the answer can be somewhat puzzling: Bolsonaro was simply being a typical Brazilian conservative.
During this pandemic, the President has proved that he thinks the same as most Brazilians, especially most of the middle and lower classes who gave him his overwhelming victory in 2018. Indeed, it is wonderful that the President is aligned with the people, but it starts to be a problem when he seems to be limited to only the general and vague ideas in the people’s daily informal conversations.
If you talk to a taxi driver or any other middle/low class worker in Rio de Janeiro, he will probably tell you it is annoying how the local authorities imposed lockdown, he might say that it is normal for people to die during war or pandemics, and certainly he will tell you that he knows plenty of people who have lost their jobs because of the imposed quarantine. And he really has a point on most of his opinions.
Although it is particularly important for a conservative leader to listen to what the people say in their common-sense, a skilful leader cannot stop here. He cannot just agree, repeat such things and do nothing more. He cannot just be a typical conservative – he must be a conservative leader.
If a leader only repeats exactly what the people say, without working out the underlying reasons behind ideas before stating them publicly or without thinking how to get them done in the current political climate, he is doomed to fail. It is true especially in Brazil, where the President must consider that every action he takes will probably somehow be cancelled by the stubborn opposition in parliament or by our activist Supreme Court – as happens on a daily basis.
Unfortunately, that is what Bolsonaro seems to be doing. His ideas are really those of a true Brazilian conservative, but that is not enough to make things happen. Unlike most politicians, he understood that many Brazilians, especially those of lower classes, could not afford to stop working even for a couple of days – as for some, their daily wage is money they need to afford food for the same night. And yet, instead of articulating this idea properly to parliament and to the local authorities (considering Brazil is a federation and the states have the final word on many issues) he simply repeated on many occasions that the pandemic is not just what is said in the media, that hydroxychloroquine is the answer, and those who die would probably have died anyway.
Bolsonaro’s administration did not organise a crisis committee to coordinate a unified answer in different areas of our nation. Such a committee was extremely necessary at the start of the pandemic, considering that the Brazilian inner economy is decentralised, and the states rely on each other to function.
Some governors even pressed Bolsonaro to set meetings to organise the country’s answer to the pandemic when it was only affecting Europe, but it did not happen because of the President. Indeed, Bolsonaro only decided to assemble the governors when São Paulo’s governor, João Doria, started to meet with other governors to do this. Seeing Doria’s initiative and being afraid that he could ultimately be recognised as a failure, Bolsonaro finally set a meeting with the governors by the end of March. However, he wasted this opportunity to accuse Doria and others of using the pandemic to promote themselves by grandstanding but failing to compromise on an organised response.
Following that, each city and state administrations applied their own policy. Bolsonaro tried to take control of the situation again in a national level, but our Supreme Court decided in April that the final word about pandemic issues would come from the states, and not the federal government. The lack of a national leadership was harmful and prevented an efficient Brazilian response to the pandemic.
As a result, Brazil was not able to avoid either excess deaths or the economic impact of the pandemic, being one of the most affected countries in the world. Coronavirus showed that Bolsonaro is a typical Brazilian conservative, which could be good, but it is not enough to have conservative convictions when the ability to apply them is lacking.