Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro Fiddles While Brazil Burns

April 9, 2020

Brazil's COVID-19 cases and deaths are higher than neighboring countries, yet the president takes no action. Indigenous people and the poorest Brazilians are in grave danger.

Brazil's COVID-19 cases and deaths are higher than neighboring countries, yet the president takes no action. Indigenous people and the poorest Brazilians are in grave danger.


Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attends a Press Conference to Give Updates on the Coronavirus (COVID-19) Outbreak

Story Transcript

This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.
Marc Steiner: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us as usual. Now more people have been affected by COVID in Brazil than any of its neighboring countries. And more people have died there as well. Mix this, Brazil’s Nero who is fiddling while Rome is burning is its president, Jair Bolsonaro, who told Brazilians to stay on the job and work. Who says he is too physically fit to get the disease and he calls it, “No more than sniffles”, while telling the people from Brazil, and this is a quote, “Some will die. I’m sorry. That’s life.”

The revolt against him is palpable. His own health minister who he threatened to fire, came out against what he said. 24 of the 27 state governors representing 200 million people out of 210 million people in Brazil have put their citizens on lockdown. Both defying and criticizing Bolsonaro.

What could happen in Brazil? Could this be the downfall of Bolsonaro or the opposite? What happens to the people of Brazil? We turn to Michael Fox journalist, documentary filmmaker and frequent contributor to the Real News, joining us now from Southern Brazil. And Mike, welcome back. Good to have you with us.Michael Fox: Thanks so much for having me.Marc Steiner: So this is what’s going on in Brazil right now as I’ve come read all these things and you’re in the midst of it. What I read from yesterday was that Brazil already has 11,000 confirmed cases, 486 deaths. It’s still rising. So talk a bit about this tenor of the land at the moment.Michael Fox: Yeah. And it’s now over 500 deaths just this morning.Marc Steiner: Wow!Michael Fox: So it’s increasing and it’s going to continue to increase. Thankfully the country, like you just said, the state governments have been able to really put the country as much as possible on lockdown. Brazil is not a country that follows rules very well. Brazilians don’t like to follow rules. And so that means that unless it’s a very clear lock down, you need to stay home. People are going to be out in the streets. They’re going to do what they want to do. And we’re still seeing that.

So regardless, despite the lockdown, you’re still getting people out in the streets. But the big question, the big thing that everybody’s been talking about really is Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro’s take on this crisis and kind of the infighting within this government right now. Obviously people are scared. They’re afraid. They don’t know where this could head because there are millions and millions and Brazil is one of the most unequal countries in the world. Poverty has been rising in recent years since the 2016 coup. And so those people are even more under strain right now. You have indigenous communities. You have [inaudible 00:02:41] communities, black communities.

And so this COVID-19, this coronavirus, is really … People are nervous about what could happen going forward in the coming weeks and coming months.

Marc Steiner: So let’s take some of these things you just talked about. Let’s start with the politics of this for a moment, but I want to get to the favelas and the indigenous communities and talk about what’s happening there that we’re not seeing and kind of the dangers there.

But you have in Brazil right now, even his own health minister. If I have his name right, Mandetta, right?

Michael Fox: That’s right.

Marc Steiner: So he came out, I mean actually saying that Bolsonaro was wrong. And pushing back and also he had threatened to fire him and now you have 23 to 27 state governors saying they we have to go and lockdown and actually defying and criticizing Bolsonaro. So what are the politics of corona as they stand now?

Michael Fox: So you have several things that are happening. First of all, I think it’s important to look at the very latest polls. According to a data full year survey that was released just a couple of days ago, 76% of the country are in favor, actually support Mandetta. 76% of the country are in favor of the lockdowns and over 50% of the population, according to this latest survey, says that Bolsonaro is doing more to harm the fight against coronavirus than he is to help it.

So that’s just kind of a quick vision of how Brazilians are seeing at this moment, right? That’s how come every single time Bolsonaro appears on national television, you have people banging pots and pans protesting his government across the country. And Bolsonaro, he’s actually been kind of rolling back his intense criticism of the quarantines and of the lockdowns just in recent days.

But you have several different things that are happening. First of all, Bolsonaro says that the economy is number one. This is kind of what he ran on and so he’s been saying, “Listen, we’ve got to get people to work. We’ve got to get back in the streets.” He’s afraid of what could happen. And partially he’s afraid of it because he’s actually been selling off the dollar reserves that Brazil has. He’s been privatized the country. That’s been kind of him and his neo liberal finance minister Paulo Gedes. That’s been kind of the goal. So this is roll back their ability to do that. And they’ve actually had to approve some anti cyclical measures. For instance, one of the things that the Senate approved last week is a 600 real, so about $114.00 stipend for informal workers. So this is going to benefit millions of informal workers in the country.

This is approved by the Senate. It’s been signed into law by Bolsonaro and they say that it could roll out this week. So this is the government that’s been trying to privatize and now it actually has to offer the support to communities in need. So on the one hand you have the economy, which Bolsonaro says is foremost that people have to get back to work. At the other hand, you have an evangelical community that is huge. It’s been rising in recent years. 25% of Brazil is now evangelical and these people have been staunch supporters of Bolsonaro.

And that’s something Bolsonaro, he called yesterday for a day of prayer and a day of fast against coronavirus. And you had people praying and fasting. You have some of the major churches have been open during this crisis and in fact some of the major supporters of Bolsonaro, the evangelical priests, have said that no one is going to get coronavirus in our churches.

So you have these different politics that are happening kind of underneath all of this at the same time. And Bolsonaro is really trying to play to his base. It’s the same thing that Donald Trump did for a long time until it got too much, until it actually became a crisis he could not handle. And that’s kind of what we’re seeing at this point. He’s been speaking to his base.

Bolsonaro knows that he has about a third of the country. That’s been his approval rating and that’s been his support since the very beginning. And he knows that’s going to stay the same. We’ve also seen this rise in fake news, kind of like what we’ve seen in the US and elsewhere. And this rise in conspiracy theories. People are talking about how the New World Order and that’s what really is behind this coronavirus. That it’s not real, it’s not really a big deal. It’s really about the New World Order trying to take over and Bolsonaro is trying to fight that.

So you have all these tensions that are happening. Obviously the politics in the middle of his government are huge. 24 top members of his government had themselves come down with the coronavirus, which they contracted during their trip to visit with Donald Trump last month. So the irony here is absolutely fantastic. But within his government, obviously he’s been saying a lot of things and they’ve just been fighting against it. He’s gotten into fights with these state governors and they’ve really been able to push back on this. Thankfully Bolsonaro is really not the one guiding the country in terms of coronavirus policies. Thankfully that could save the country.

Marc Steiner: So when you’re looking at this, I mean, so politically this could go either way. I mean same here with Trump or in Britain with Barrs, whatever else. This can go either way politically, depending on how this tumbles out. I mean, if the 23 governors are successful in limiting the spread of the virus in their states where there are lockdowns, it actually could go to Bolsonaro’s benefit. I mean, I don’t want people dying in Brazil, but I want the governors to do what they’re doing, but this also goes to the benefit of Bolsonaro in the end. Saying, “Look, see, we made it through”. I mean all that’s all possible.

Michael Fox: Absolutely. I mean, right now everything is up in the air. That’s what we know that COVID-19 has done. And it’s anyone’s guess what this is going to look like in a couple of months. five or six months from now. We do know that for instance, Trump’s approval ratings have been rising. Bolsonaro’s have stayed kind of steady at this point. It’s really hard to say what could happen going forward.

Bolsonaro, like Trump, is not someone to apologize. He’s not going to come out in the end and say, “Oh yeah, sorry, that was crazy of me. I shouldn’t have done that.” He’s going to come out and he’s going to take a responsibility for whatever happened, unless something bad happens and millions die and then he’s going to try and blame that on everybody else.

So we know that those are the policies. We know that that’s the discourse. That’s the way that they’re seeing it and they’re trying to angle it however best they can. But we have no clue what’s going to happen going forward here, politically here in Brazil.

Marc Steiner: So let me move the conversation a bit here to actually the people of Brazil. And too deeply affected parts of Brazil in terms of population. The indigenous people and the people are living in the favelas, the slums in the cities of Brazil. But let me start with the indigenous population. I mean that’s been one of Bolsonaro’s battles, taking away the rights of indigenous people, opening up to mining and logging. The governors of Amazonia and the other provinces or right-wingers and the indigenous people are terrified this disease is going to come in and wipe them out like other diseases have in the past several hundred years. And you can tell us more about this. An indigenous leader was just killed two days ago. So what about that dynamic?

Michael Fox: Absolutely. This is probably the major population here in Brazil that people are most concerned about is Brazil’s almost a million indigenous population. Almost a million indigenous peoples. And they’re spread out all around Northern Brazil, throughout the South. You have various different dynamics that are happening, but everybody is extremely nervous.

I’ve been talking with indigenous leaders over the last few days, over last couple of weeks. I was in the Amazon about two and a half weeks ago, met with indigenous communities, visited their homes. And even then they were very nervous about what kind of an impact this could have. And why?

Just like you mentioned Mark, it was back just a couple of years ago where a major bout of the flu ran through many indigenous communities outside of Alta Meta. More than 100 members of indigenous tribes were had to be taken out of their territory and brought to hospitals. Children died. And people are very afraid of the potential of this happening the same way if it spreads in these communities because they’re so far. They’re so far isolated, right?

So how do you get them medical attention if they have to be brought to a hospital? It’s many of these communities, it takes days to get in and out unless you have a plane. There are so many questions. And you also don’t necessarily want to bring a doctor into many of these communities, a doctor who might himself or herself be contagious with the virus. That’s what’s so complicated about this moment, right?

So I was speaking with Andre Karapuna from the Karapuna Community out in Han Donya. I was speaking with him last night and he said, “Listen, we’re on lockdown. We’re not leaving. I’ve told everyone that they’re used to traveling back and forth every month or every two months to the city.” He said, “We’re not going anywhere unless it’s an absolute emergency and we’re hoping to just wait this thing out.”

Now what’s really complicated is at the same time as this is happening with coronavirus, you still the invasions in indigenous communities by illegal loggers, by illegal miners. And that’s what happened just a couple of days ago in like you said, with another death from this indigenous community and Maranhao in the Eastern most Amazonian state of Maranhao.

So these communities, they’re still kind of invading indigenous territories. And the fear from indigenous communities is that with more people in lockdown with less inspections going on from the Brazilian government, that can then empower land grabbers and illegal loggers to really push further into the Amazon and purse forth even faster than before and to indigenous communities. You have 20,000 illegal miners according to reports just in the Yanomami territory alone in Hort Ima and Amazonas right near the Venezuelan border. 20,000 illegal miners.

And the fear is they have contact with the community. So the fears, they can also be spreading this disease to the Yanomami Community. So there’s so many things that are happening and that’s not even to get into the reality with the fires. In another couple of months, it’s going to be summertime up there. Things are going to be hot. The fire is going to start again because they were started last year by land owners clearing land and by people trying to push into indigenous territories. They’re most likely going to happen again. But how are people going to put out those fires if everybody is still on lockdown? Because right now it’s also important to look at, in Brazil, we have a situation where in the United States you’re heading into the summer. So people are encouraged by that, that might help to slow the push of coronavirus around the country. Brazil’s headed into winter. So it’s the exact opposite. People are very nervous about the spikes that could happen in the coming months as the weather starts to get colder.

Marc Steiner: And then the other population to talk about here are the other people who live in the favelas all through Brazil. I mean, there was a quote I read in the BBC this morning by Gilson Rodrigues, who is a leader of one of the favelas, who said, “Jair Bolsonaro will be partly responsible for any deaths because he’s creating this situation. It’s as if the 13 million people who live in the slums in Brazil don’t exist. There’s been no policy to look after the country’s favelas. We’re here, left to fend for ourselves.”

So that’s another situation which involves a huge portion of Afro Brazilians as well as other Brazilians.

Michael Fox: Absolutely. I spoke with an infectious doctor, retired infectious doctor just a couple of weeks ago, and he was saying this is his biggest concern is the income inequality in Brazil and the very high poverty because what Brazil has going for it is a universal public health system. But that is not spread equally around the country. And so people in the favelas A, have more difficult access to healthcare. And B, they’re living in very, very difficult situations. They’re in much more dense populations. 40 million people don’t have access to water. And so that’s a major issue in the favelas. And almost half of Brazilians, there is no treatment of water systems, right? So there is no public treatment sewage treatment systems. So that means that they’re now in Brazil seeing how this virus could be surviving in the sewers as well. So that’s a whole other question.

But I was speaking with a woman who lives in the Paraisopolis Favela just last night, which is just North of Rio de Janeiro. She was out yesterday bringing food to poor communities, kind of in her own neighborhood and also in other neighborhoods nearby. Where she lives is an area which is just built of shacks. It’s right along occluded waterfront. The streets are dirt. Many of the people, they survive by going out and selling things in the streets. They survive by cutting hair. They survive by just barely making ends meet. Housekeeping.

Now they can’t get out because of the quarantine and they’re okay with quarantine, but they have no means of survival. She said she spoke with a little boy who was so happy that she was bringing some food. He said he had been that night because they had nothing to eat. He had been sucking on his pillowcase imagining that it was food. So this is the situation that’s happening literally right now in Rio de Janeiro and it’s extremely complicated because it’s not like the state officials, whether it’s the government, federal, or even local, are out in these communities.

They’re supporting these people. People should be at home. They shouldn’t have to be worrying about food, but even the state officials aren’t out doing this work. Now, like I mentioned it was passed by the Senate just last week. So there is a 600 real stipend that’s going to go to members of the informal economy and that should help. And they said it should start to be distributed this week, but it hasn’t been distributed yet. We don’t know how long it’s going to take. And so right now people are just in these very precarious situations.

Marc Steiner: So the one quick thing before we close with another question here. They read the quote. They said 13 million people living in the favelas. But my other [inaudible 00:16:56] is a great deal more people living in favelas and the poverty in Brazil, not just 13 million out of 210. I mean that’s a little skewed, right?

Michael Fox: Absolutely. Absolutely. No, there are much more. It could be 13 million in Rio itself.

Marc Steiner: Right.

Michael Fox: And in the state of Rio as well.

Marc Steiner: That’s right.

Michael Fox: Because outside of Sao Paulo, you have massive regions favelas and you have favelas in every major city that ring the city. The favelas are created by people that move into the city and try and look for work and they find a way to build their home on top to another and then over time, they become these neighborhoods and communities and whatnot. So no, the poverty rate has been increasing in recent years and whether or not you’re living in favela, if you’re living a week to week or day to day, this moment of having to be at home in quarantine is extremely hard.

Marc Steiner: I mean, so it just appears to me, Mike, this is a hugely vulnerable situation in Brazil. We don’t know how it’s going to play out. I mean many, many, many people could die and get really sick from the coronavirus in Brazil the way Bolsonaro’s handling things and especially even the poverty and what’s happening in indigenous communities.

On the other hand, you have all these governors of these States who are both right wingers and left wingers and an in between as well that are saying basically giving Bolsonaro the fingers saying, “We’re doing this ourselves because you’re incompetent and we have to save the people of our communities”. So the questions politically and socially in terms of corona, I mean anything could happen now. There’s nobody to be even slightly recant about what’s about to happen.

Michael Fox: Absolutely. And this is why people are so concerned. I mean even the governor and the state were live, Santa Catarina, this is largely a right wing state. He’s a member of the PSL, which is Bolsonaro’s party. And it was clear about a week and a half ago that he was being pressured from Bolsonaro to change his stance. So he said a week and a half ago he was going to lift the quarantine starting as of last week, starting Monday and opening everything up as of Wednesday. He pushed that off and it’s been pushed off again. But you can tell that he wants to get things going. He wants to bring things. He wants to get the economy rolling, just like Bolsonaro.

Now things are obviously increasing. They don’t want the pandemic to get out of proportion. Brazil has the highest percentage of respirators per population than anywhere else in Latin America, but it still is not substantial and not enough to fulfill the need of the population.

They’re building field hospitals in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro right now, but that’s just it. We don’t know how bad this is going to get and that is really the big question. At some point, a while back, the health minister said that at least half the population was going to have to be infected before this whole thing was over. Now that would be over 100 million people. And if you look at a death rate of roughly one to 2% and we’re talking about, potentially as many as one to two million Brazilians.

But again, if they’re able to keep people in their homes, if they’re able to push this thing forward and get us over the hump, then it might not be that bad. The estimates according to the research go from anywhere to a couple hundred thousand being infected two to millions. So it’s all up in the air. We really don’t know where this is going forward.

Marc Steiner: Well, Mike Fox, we always appreciate your work for this and I look forward to what you bring to us from Brazil, whether it’s your documentaries or our conversations here as this unfolds. And thank you so much for your work and thanks for being with us here today.

Michael Fox: Excellent. Thanks, Marc.

Marc Steiner: And stay healthy. Good luck to you and your wife.

Michael Fox: You, too.

Marc Steiner: And I’m Marc Steiner here with the Real News Network. We want all of you to stay healthy, stay safe. And we’ll be talking together soon.

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