Bolsonaro’s deliberate attempt to achieve herd immunity disproportionately affected Brazil’s poor and vulnerable.
As a devastating second wave has brought Brazil’s Covid-19 death tally past 626,000, the second highest in the world behind the US, emotions are turning from grief to anger. With Brazilians seeking to understand how the pandemic response failed so disastrously, President Jair Bolsonaro has come under increasing scrutiny. In April, a request by opposition parties to initiate a congressional inquiry into the handling of the pandemic was approved. The recently published report by the inquiry, known as the CPI, is damning in its condemnation of the Bolsonaro regime and its Covid-19 policy.
‘The conducts of the head of the Federal Executive Branch unquestionably attacked public health and administrative probity.’ -CPI Report
The CPI report did not only identify critical failures in all aspects of Brazilian Covid-19 policy, but concluded that Bolsonaro had intentionally encouraged the spread of the virus with the aim of achieving herd immunity. The CPI stated that the ‘conducts of the head of the Federal Executive Branch … unquestionably attacked public health and administrative probity’.
Witness testimony to the commission detailed how, from the earliest days of the pandemic, Bolsonaro had downplayed the danger posed by the virus, referring to Covid-19 as a ‘little flu’. Bolsonaro repeatedly defied advice from health officials, refused to wear a mask in public and criticised state governors that had implemented local lockdown measures.
Bolsonaro’s open scepticism towards Covid-19 vaccines only bolstered his ‘Covid denier’ image. Most significantly, Bolsonaro dismissed several offers from Pfizer at the height of the pandemic in November 2020. Brazil’s slow vaccine rollout the following April has been attributed to this late acquisition of vaccines by the central government. The report identifies the delay to acquire vaccines as a ‘deliberate and conscious act’ to achieve herd immunity.
‘Bolsonaro’s support for herd immunity is in alignment with his own views on society.’
Not only does Bolsonaro’s commitment to herd immunity demonstrate significantly flawed scientific knowledge, it also is suggestive of his own political stance. As an extreme proponent of neo-liberalism, Bolsonaro’s support for herd immunity is in alignment with his own views on society. The doctrine of competition that is so strongly lauded in neoliberalism seems to be reflective of the harsh realities of herd immunity. When questioned on Covid-19 deaths Bolsonaro himself replied ‘we will all die someday… so stop being sissies’. When combining Bolsonaro’s social views with his dogmatic commitment to the free market and limited government intervention, the motivation for his staunch anti-lockdown pro-herd immunity position becomes clear.
‘The poorest 40% of the population… were 60% more likely to die.’ -Oxford University, Latin American Centre.
Bolsonaro’s pursuit of an ‘ultra-neoliberal’ anti-lockdown, vaccine-skeptical Covid policy has only exacerbated existing inequalities in what was already one of the most unequal societies in the world.
As concluded by the Lancet, the spread of Covid-19 infections and deaths in Brazil was deeply affected by patterns of socioeconomic vulnerability. Death rates were highest in areas with marked socioeconomic vulnerabilities, particularly in North and Northeastern regions.
Localised pockets of poverty were equally demonstrative of the inequality of Covid. In São Paulo, between April and July 2020, the poorest 40% of the population had an 8% higher risk of hospitalisation and were 60% more likely to die from Covid-19.
Low-income groups were not only more likely to be exposed to the pandemic due to factors such as formality of work, ease of transportation, living conditions, but also less likely to access adequate healthcare. In Brazil, 51% of ICU beds are in private hospitals but only 25% of Brazilians use private healthcare; this number lowers to 12% in the prominently Black north and northeast regions.
In conclusion, although it may not constitute a ‘class war’, there can be no doubt that Bolsonaro’s Covid-19 policy disproportionately affected the most vulnerable in society. After the report by the CPI, we can no longer point to perceived ignorance to explain his actions, rather we must look to his own political beliefs.
His commitment to herd immunity was an essentially violent and discriminatory decision. Bolsonaro consistently chose a path of action which was incredibly damaging to poor, often Black communities. Whether this was purely a result of his emphatic commitment to neoliberalism or suggestive of more sinister notions of elitism and white superiority remains to be debated.