Brazil coronavirus: Bolsonaro’s ticking time bomb

The president could only muster an impatient shrug Tuesday when confronted by reporters about the country’s more than 5,500 confirmed coronavirus deaths. “So what?” he said. “I’m sorry. What do you want me to do?”

Brazil has about 80,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, but experts say the real number is much higher, potentially above 1 million. Bodies are piling up in major cities as local officials anticipate a surge of cases, with the likely peak of the outbreak still weeks away. The uncertainty isn’t helped by the fact that Bolsonaro’s government is presiding over a woefully insufficient testing operation.

Brazil “tests 12 times fewer people than Iran, and 32 times fewer than the United States,” my colleagues reported, a grim metric given that the United States still needs to accelerate its own testing efforts. “Hospitalized patients aren’t being tested. Some medical professionals aren’t being tested. People are dying in their homes without being tested.”

The rest of the world is taking note. Brazil’s neighbors are growing increasingly wary of the country’s lax approach and fear it will become a continental super spreader. “A lot of traffic is coming from São Paulo, where the infection rate is extremely high, and it doesn’t appear to me that the Brazilian government is taking it with the seriousness that it requires,” Argentine President Alberto Fernández said last weekend. “That worries me a lot, for the Brazilian people and also because it can be carried to Argentina.”

The Associated Press reports that Argentine officials in provinces bordering Brazil are working to set up secure corridors so that Brazilian truckers can enter the country and deliver their goods without coming into contact with Argentines. There are similar plans afoot in Uruguay. Paraguay has shut its borders and at least in one instance dug a trench between two border towns to prevent crossings. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro — a Bolsonaro nemesis in charge of a crisis-ravaged country — vowed to ensure “an epidemiological and military barrier” along his nation’s border with Brazil.

In the United States, Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis warned of the risks posed by Brazilian travelers heading to his state, which is home to a large Brazilian diaspora. “Brazil has great scientific and economic capacity, but clearly its leadership has an unscientific stance on fighting coronavirus,” said DeSantis.

That’s a view shared by Bolsonaro’s former health minister, who left his post last month under acrimonious circumstances. Bolsonaro “started to have anti-health attitudes, inciting crowds, hailing a medication that didn’t have any scientific basis,” Luiz Henrique Mandetta told The Washington Post, referring to the president’s dismissal of the need for lockdowns and his obsession with touting the healing properties of hydroxychloroquine. “I don’t think he fired me,” Mandetta added. “He fired science.”

But for Bolsonaro’s fortunes, Mandetta’s firing is less important than the departure of Sérgio Moro, the justice minister who left his post April 24, but not before he denounced Bolsonaro for seeking to install a more pliant national police chief who could theoretically hinder ongoing investigations into the president’s sons. The accusations are damning and, if proved, could lead to the possible impeachment of the president, who has already lost considerable support from conservative and centrist allies over his handling of the outbreak. This week, the country’s chief justice authorized an investigation into the president’s alleged corruption and obstruction of justice.

Bolsonaro is sticking to his hard-line instincts and has railed against perceived foes, including the news media. He’s counting on his energized base to dispel what political momentum there may be to oust the president. “Don’t underestimate the power of tribalism in the Age of Social Media — particularly a tribe that has much of the military, the police, truckers, and other formidable groups in its corner,” wrote Brian Winter in Americas Quarterly. “How will they behave if their leader is truly threatened?”

Some analysts are optimistic that Brazil can weather that particular storm. “The system of checks and balances is working,” Sergio Davila, editor in chief of Folha de S.Paulo, one of the county’s preeminent newspapers, told the New Yorker. “The Supreme Court is doing its job. The Congress is doing its job. It is turning down a lot of exotic propositions from the executive.”

But in the depths of the pandemic, it’s not just Brazil’s political system that’s under stress.

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