By Brynna Boyer
Much of the world has been devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic over the past six months. Nations have been brought to their knees as their economies have been crippled by widespread lockdown measures instituted in the name of public health. However, in the midst of such ubiquitous social sequestration, Brazil stands out in its health response as a country which, by refusing to comply with public health measures, has been devastated by COVID-19.
In May, Latin America became an epicentre of the coronavirus pandemic, and in this centre of the virus, Brazil is perhaps the worst-hit country in the region. Totalling around 140,000 deaths and over 4.5 million cases (more than the entirety of Europe), it is one of the three hardest-hit countries in the world, only behind the United States and India.
This is due in large part to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his government’s emergency COVID-19 response. With an astonishing lack of responsibility towards the welfare of his people, Bolsonaro has downplayed the severity of the situation since May.
He has refused to follow public health safety advice set by the World Health Organization (WHO), and much of the country remains open while the president himself flouts social distancing to attend political rallies and mingle with his supporters. When confronted about the havoc being wrought on the lives of his citizens due to his gross negligence, Bolsonaro merely shrugged and said, ‘So what?’
The Brazilian President’s refusal to acknowledge the danger of the virus has put his citizens at high risk. As Bolsonaro battles with governors to reverse regional lockdowns, people do not have the choice to stay home. If they want to feed their families, they must ignore global health advice and work.
As much of the country is reeling in the wake of Bolsonaro’s inaction, people living in favela communities are struggling to survive. Favelas are Brazilian low-income communities on the outskirts of cities, where a high proportion of residents live in extreme poverty. Many inhabitants live in dangerously unhygienic conditions and struggle to feed themselves during ‘normal’ circumstances; the impact of the COVID-19 has only exacerbated their suffering.
People who live in favelas do not have the luxury to shield during this pandemic and are therefore at higher risk of contracting, and dying from, COVID-19. Citizens of Brazil do receive a monthly emergency aid stimulus from the government, but it is only R$600 (£85) per month, a virtually impossible sum on which to live.
As many in favelas do not have the means to adequately support themselves, they cannot afford private medical plans and are thus greatly dependent on Brazil’s public healthcare and hospitals, which are also on the brink of collapse.
This means being infected with COVID, as a member of a favela community, is most certainly a death sentence as overrun public hospitals are unable to provide adequate medical care. These people must still go out and work as they cannot afford to stay home and shield during the pandemic. Waiting is deadly, yet so is working, so what are favela communities to do?
The government is no help to favela communities as Bolsonaro, even whilst being infected by the virus himself, refuses to acknowledge the true danger of COVID-19. No social programs have been launched to give aid to those struggling due to the pandemic, and the citizens of Brazil’s poorest communities are left to deal with this health crisis virtually on their own.
The rise of bandidos
In light of this suffering amidst a global health crisis, organised crime groups within certain favelas have become the source of aid for their community. Bolsonaro’s lack of response has made bandidos in these neighbourhoods step up to provide medical aid to residents.
As these gangs no longer have as large of a demand for drugs in the climate of the pandemic, some have turned their labs into sites for hand sanitiser manufacturing, and taken to the streets to hand out free hygiene kits to members of their community.
They have also imposed strict curfews within their respective favelas so that outsiders who have COVID, due to the unregulated nature of Brazil’s pandemic response, do not bring it into the favela communities and infect people who will not be able to receive adequate care.
Most international health officials throughout this pandemic have maintained that a vaccine is the only ticket back to normalcy. However, Bolsonaro is alienating world leaders, as well as the WHO, and Brazil’s hope for receiving a vaccine in the short-term is waning. This means Brazilians will have to suffer with the virus for a longer period of time than most of the world, and a vaccine cannot be a viable solution for the majority of the Brazilian population.
Once a vaccine is developed and distributed worldwide, private health clinics in Brazil will receive doses of the vaccine and, as supply and demand laws dictate, make it available to the public for an exorbitant price, ensuring the wealthy elite of the country need no longer fear COVID-19. Public clinics will struggle to provide their patrons with doses of the vaccine, as they already cannot cope with caring for the infected.
It may be years until the common citizen in Brazil, much less members of the impoverished favelas, can get a vaccine, meaning years of unemployment, lockdown-induced poverty and starvation, and people risking their lives amidst an ever-present, ever-deadly coronavirus in order to provide for their family.
Bolsonaro was voted in as President in 2018, under the premise he would end corruption in Brazil. Yet the country is two years into his term and absolutely nothing has changed. Government officials are allegedly funnelling money away from social programs and hospitals, meant to help citizens during the pandemic, right into their own pockets.
Not only has Bolsonaro been unable to keep his promise of ending the corruption, of which Brazilians are rightly outraged, but his failure to do so also negatively impacts the treatment of people who contracted COVID-19 due to his inadequate pandemic response. At a time when social programs mean life or death to a large portion of the population, the fact that Brazil’s most vulnerable communities must now rely on organised crime for aid is a testament to just how appalling Bolsonaro has handled this crisis.
When bandidos do more for their community than the President of Brazil, there surely must be something fundamentally wrong in the political machine that is Bolsonaro’s government.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.