“300, 400, 500 thousand people are going to die in the next two years in Brazil as a result of the economic loss" derived from the restrictions to combat the coronavirus, predicted the businessman Junior Durski. Paralyzing the national economy “because of 5000 or 7000 people who are going to die” due to covid-19 is not realistic – protests the owner of some restaurants – in a video broadcasted by Instagram, before the closure of activities that result in crowds of people (Translation from Spanish of Alissa d'Vale).
The effects of social distancing and the suspension of work will be worse than the epidemic, agreed President Bolsonaro and many businessmen who, like Durski, want to keep their businesses open.
But they abuse data that is questionable or clearly unrealistic in their arguments. From what is known, without actions to contain the rhythm of the epidemic, Brazil would have much more than 7000 deaths, a figure surpassed by Italy, which has a 70% smaller population and better economic conditions, and which adopted radical measures to contain the spread of the virus.
Brazil has 210 million inhabitants and 40 million unemployed workers. Trying to alleviate the aftermath of the economic recession – unavoidable also in the event of looser restrictions on agglomerations that favor the infection – is a task to which all governments are dedicated.
The United States approved a $3 trillion package to help industries, small businesses, the health sector, local governments, and people affected by the crisis. A $1,200 dollars check was directed to millions of adults and a $500 dollars check went to children and teens.
In Brazil, the government also decided to cover companies, local governments and people in difficulties with the deferral of debts and taxes, low-interest loans, investments in health and personal bonuses. The poorest informal or self-employed workers received vouchers for about $60 dollars a month for three months, an amount evidently insufficient to ensure survival. The government’s initial proposal was of $40 dollars, but it was raised because of pressure from the legislative National Congress.
The crisis found a doubly unskilled government, both on combatting the epidemic and on pushing forward a policy for defense and economic recovery.
Bolsonaro has dismissed covid-19 as a “flu” that would only affect the elderly and vulnerable, accusing the press of causing “hysteria” and “panic” that would lead to economic paralysis, and defending the return to normal life, including going back to school; opinions that are contrary to what is practiced in almost all of the world and by their own Minister of Health.
Bolsonaro, an opponent to his government
The minister issued general recommendations after registering the first case in the country on February 26, such as going out to the streets as little as possible, avoiding crowds, hygiene advice or protecting the population over 60-years old.
The concrete measures, with increasing restrictions, were promoted by state governments, starting with the most affected, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and the Federal District where Brasilia is: suspension of classes in schools and universities, of shows, of massive activities, then reduction of flights, urban and intercity transport, industrial companies and non-essential services.
The adoption of the restrictions was messy and sometimes counterproductive, but they were seeking to slow down the spike of infections and alleviate the collapse of the healthcare system, which was expected in late April.
“On that front, Bolsonaro is leading the opposition to his own government,” said a television commentator. He accuses the governors of “destroying jobs and Brazil”, by committing the “crime” of imposing an almost total social distancing on the population. His positions, reiterated in television messages to the nation and in quick interviews, provoked rejection throughout the country, expressed in pot-banging protests every night in large Brazilian cities.
The president's attitude towards the coronavirus crisis has apparently irreversibly aggravated his own political isolation. Requests for his disqualification have grown, but is unfeasible because it demands a two-thirds majority in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, or because of dismissal based on mental imbalance.
“Bolsonaro, enemy of the people's health,” utters a “death speech” manifested by eight organizations of doctors and health professionals headed by the Brazilian Association of Collective Health.
Playing with the life of the population is costing him much in terms of popularity. His behavior in the face of the crisis was approved by only 35% of those interviewed in a survey by the Datafolha Institute, conducted between March 18th and 20th, while 55% approved the management of the Minister of Health and 54% that of the governors.
Prioritizing the economy responds to his need to be re-elected in 2022, an obsession of Bolsonaro. There was a certain consensus that an economic recovery, after a disappointing 2019 in which the gross domestic product grew only 1.1%, would favor its electoral strength. But now, with the impact of the coronavirus, a recession is inevitable, that is why the president defends an early resumption of productive activities, although he acknowledges its impossibility. What he seeks is to show his position to exempt himself from the blame for the economic disaster and instead blame the governors responsible for the paralysis. But he loses followers from the vast majority which favors the containment of the virus.
“Life first”, the economy can recover, but the dead cannot resurrect, representatives of all sectors reply, especially doctors and even economists. Furthermore, the economic challenges posed by the pandemic are not in line with the ideas of radical liberalism adopted by the government. Fiscal austerity lost meaning in the current moment.
The crisis requires expanding expenses, issuing currency and expanding demand, and an opposite policy, close to that established by John Keynes (1883-1946), the British economist whose ideas allowed to overcome the depression of 1929, unleashed by the failure of the stock market of New York.
The dogmas of neoliberalism will have to be broken, the fiscal deficit and the public debt must be increased to offer income to the estimated 40 million informal sector workers, the 12 million unemployed, subsidize some activities, offer salaries to employees who risk losing their jobs, and small businesses.
That requires a social sensitivity that the Brazilian economic team lacks. Among the measures that led to the parliamentary approval on March 23, to settle the crisis included: the authorization for companies to suspend employment contracts for four months, without payment of wages.
The prospect of leaving millions of workers without income when they need it most has sparked outright rejection and widespread criticism. The government withdrew the measure to negotiate an alternative acceptable to the actors.
Photo. Workers at work in a cemetery in Manaus © Ansa