Brazil and the dance on the edge of the volcano

Mario H. Jorge Jr, Markus Pohlmann

External crises, such as the Corona crisis, are often an opportunity in politics for political actors to reshuffle the cards. While in Germany this goes hand in hand with harmless profiling attempts, in Brazil the political intrigue is in full swing. The popular health minister, Luis Henrique Mandetta, has been dismissed and his successor has also promptly resigned. Even the notorious Minister of Justice, Sergio Moro, has jumped ship, although for other reasons. He left behind a dossier as well as a court statement on the conduct of Jair Bolsonaro, perhaps in order to prepare the impeachment proceedings against another incumbent president in Brazil. Meanwhile, the president himself is surfing on the waves of public agitation in the media, and the governors and courts are doing their utmost to minimize the consequences of the president’s media somersaults. In the background, the generals now seem to be turning impatient again. Politics gone wild in Brazil.

Source: Jair e Michelle Bolsonaro com a filha Laura em 7 de setembro de 2019 https://www.flickr.com/photos/palaciodoplanalto/48693204476/in/album-72157710736216587/

Immediately after Bolsonaro’s assumption of office, the first generals and military men had moved into his cabinet and ministries. Almost a year and a half later, they now seem to be omnipresent in Brazil’s politics. The former captain Bolsonaro has deployed 2500 high ranking military men, mostly from reserve, but also numerous from active duty: at the health centers – overburdened by the Corona crisis -, at the post office, at the state oil company Petrobras, at the Itaipú power plant and so on. Many are now afraid of a new military dictatorship while others welcome it.

Whatever the outcome of this spectacle for Brazil, it makes clear how path-dependent political systems react to the corona crisis. The political system in Brazil is dancing on the edge of the volcano of the pandemic, forcing the population to dance along even in times such as this: for quite a few it is a matter of life and death. In crises like this one, you learn a lot about how the systems really „tick“ and it’s no different in Brazil.

The virus in Brazil

With a total number of 17,983 deaths and 271,885 confirmed infected persons, Brazil, as of 20.05.2020, has far exceeded the official figures for China. As of May 19, 2020, with an average of 79 deaths per million inhabitants, it is comparatively below Germany, which has 91 COVID19 deaths per million inhabitants, but only still. Experts believe that the peak of the first wave of the pandemic will not be reached in Brazil until July. Due to the restricted laboratory capacities, as in other countries, mortality and morbidity figures can hardly be estimated correctly. According to experts, the number of people infected in the country with a population of 210 million will therefore be 12 to 15 times higher than officially stated. The intensive care units in metropolises such as Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro are in the meantime close to being overloaded.

Table: Case-Fatality Rates and COVID19-Deaths per 100.000 Population by Country, May 19, 2020

Country Case fatality rates in % Deaths/100k population
Brazil 6,6% 8.05
China 5.5% 0.33
Germany 4.5% 9.65
US 6 27.61

Source: John Hopkins Coronavirus Centre, May 19

 Many sick people in Brazil apparently do not even seek help in the overcrowded hospitals. The number of people who die at home has also risen by 20 percent. In the state of Amazonas it is two and a half times higher than before the first death in March. For millions of Brazilians, and not just the indigenous population, the reality is that they simply live too far from the nearest equipped hospital.

 Social inequality and drug gangs

As in other countries, the pandemic reproduces the sharp social inequality in the country. For many Brazilians, it is no coincidence that the first victim of the pandemic in Rio de Janeiro was a domestic worker. She died on 17 March at the age of 63, was diabetic and suffered from high blood pressure. Her employer lives in the very wealthy Leblon district and had returned from a trip to Italy. So the idea that the pandemic affects everyone equally, regardless of social background, poverty and wealth, is also being drastically refuted in Brazil. While the initial restrictions and the requirement for distance are not enforceable in most favelas, the pandemic deprives many poor people of their meagre income opportunities. For the first time since the 1990s, poverty figures are rising again worldwide, and this trend is intensifying in Brazil. Even before Corona, poverty figures have been rising in the country again since 2014. According to the surveys on Corona in Brazil, the threat of COVID19 is taken seriously, but, for example, those who earn only between $400 and $1,000 US dollars per month are most likely not to follow the quarantine measures (35%).[1] They often have no other choice. The pandemic is not breaking through social inequality in Brazil but reproducing it in a more acute form.

Quelle: Depositphotos

Social inequality is felt in different ways. It begins with the different treatment in private as well as public hospitals and ends with the decision who gets a place in the intensive care unit. Social and economic inequality between the federal states/regions is also being exacerbated by the crisis. In the southern states (Paraná, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul) there are fewer deaths and infections per inhabitant, while in the northern states the situation is still more critical. Path dependency can be seen in this aspect as well.

Of course, against this background, the criminal gangs in the favelas stage themselves as benefactors and guardians of public order. In some favelas of Rio de Janeiro, for example, they have been monitoring the curfews. But in fact, theft, robbery, bank fraud, bank robbery and the looting of ATMs are increasing dramatically[2]. Because even the drug gangs are deprived of many of their criminal sources of income by Corona and have to switch to other criminal business models.

Democracy and the State

Bolsonaro’s success, like that of other populist movements or candidates, initially only indicated how democracy works. Much, especially for populist candidates, revolves around impression management, the impression you make on voters – even after you are elected. It is different when, after the election of a populist government, the institutional arrangements are to be restructured or overturned. For the democratic form of government must not be confused with the form of government of a country and the latter with the institutional order in a society. At best they fit together, but often tensions are the order of the day. And it is precisely these tensions between the institutional order of a society, the form of state organization and the democratic form of government that the Corona crisis in Brazil is currently further exposing. The now simple attribution of „weakness“ to Bolsonaro, who presents himself as „strong“, cannot be attributed solely to personal inadequacies – these are precisely what made him successful in the elections – and is also an effect of these tensions. For also in Brazil is the resistance to Bolsonaro’s showings great, along the lines of the system of separation of powers, the federal structure and the form of state organization, and now, with the Corona crisis, it is even stronger and out in the open.

Thus, in addition to his speeches, the President signed decrees to circumvent state and municipal decisions, but these were immediately blocked by the Supreme Court. In another recent court decision, the President’s cabinet was also prohibited from carrying out an advertising campaign calling on people to return to work. In the decision, Judge Laura Bastos Carvalho stated that the incentive for the population to take to the streets and resume their routine without having a plan to fight the defined and widespread pandemic may violate the principles of precaution and prevention, leading to insufficient protection of the constitutional right to health, both in its individual and collective nature.

Santo André/São Paulo/Brazil – April 19, 2020 – President Jair Bolsonaro. The brazilian flag behind him has a blue conronavirus over that. Covid-19 situation in Brazil related concepts.

Jair Bolsonaro had already felt the institutional headwind because of his controversial environmental policy: The governors of the Amazon region feared international economic sanctions and serious damage to their image because of the dispute over the devastating forest fires and the offer of help from the G7 states. This resistance along the lines of federal government and state form has now come to a head in the Corona crisis and is being marketed politically by Bolsonaro. At the end of March, the president had called on the country’s citizens to open their shops, go shopping and return to everyday life. Bolsonaro, who calls Covid-19 „flu“, thus called for a breach of the decrees issued by most of Brazil’s governors and mayors. These had already ordered the closure of all companies and shops that do not serve the food supply. Public and educational institutions were closed, and long-distance bus services were suspended. The citizens were to stay at home.

Constantly campaigning, Bolsonaro made a statement criticizing the closure of schools and attending public meetings. Contrary to what he had said in a speech the week before, Bolsonaro took part in pro-government demonstrations on March 15 and again on April 19. In recent weeks, the president has then called on the population to adhere to so-called „vertical isolation“, which technical studies and most governors do not support. Access to information, a right guaranteed by law eight years ago, had also been briefly „quarantined“ by his cabinet, although a restriction to this right was again blocked by a decision of the Supreme Court. Bolsonaro and his cabinet are therefore currently fighting against an institutional order in which most institutions and state organizations, quite independently of their leadership, are taking globally recognized measures to combat the pandemic.

The president, on the other hand, has high hopes for treatment with chloroquine, hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin (now available with relaxed regulation). From the outset, Bolsonaro praises the active ingredient chloroquine, which can cause cardiac arrhythmia, as a „cure“ without any proof of its effectiveness.

Quelle: Depositphotos

Whatever becomes the object of his ongoing „branding“ through shrill maneuvers in Brazil’s political theatre is directed against the crisis policy of most governors. This is where the “Bolsonaro Show” gets its media feed, but it also shows how intact the federal structure, the separation of powers and the state organization are behind this political theater. Here he can surf on the waves of excitement, rejection and indignation, but in fact it is precisely this functioning of the institutional order that makes him appear interchangeable. It is this tension between the post-heroic form of state organization and the populists who rely on heroic stagings that gives populists their dance on the edge of the volcano its inevitability. It is precisely their interchangeability in the face of the perseverance of bureaucratic organizations and established institutional orders that creates the sting of the constant staging, as we can also observe in other democracies governed by populism.

The population and the question of compliance

The „spectators“ currently react differently to this show. If there will be a „treatment“ soon, some say to themselves, why stick to the measures? The impact of this type of non-compliance was the subject of a recent study conducted by Nicolás Ajzenman, Tiago Cavalcanti and Daniel da Mata: More than words: Leadership speech and risky behavior during a pandemic (April 22, 2020). They concluded that, according to Bolsonaro’s speeches, compliance with social distancing measures by citizens in areas close to the government is reduced compared to places where his support is weaker. The population is therefore not equally impressed by the shrill staging of the events, but rather by their political sympathies. But of course, there are many other moderating variables: the economic situation of households, educational and age effect, among others. Those who cannot go to work may literally lose their livelihood in Brazil.

That Bolsonaro’s speeches have an effect on the behavior of the population in accordance with the measures can also be seen in the following diagram. Using electronic geolocation, it shows the percentage of people who complied with the initial restrictions in March 2020 and the presumed effect of the presidential intervention. In the week between 24 and 30 March, when the President repeatedly stated on television that the economy must not be stopped and that he was far too strong to get this flu, compliance measures fell by an average of 10 percentage points to an average of less than half of the population who complied with the measures to combat the pandemic.

Source: Época[3]
Thus, the public’s answers to the question of compliance prove to depend not so much on a rational risk assessment, but rather on irrational political world views and sympathies. These elements moderate to some extent, not only in Brazil, the reactions of the population to the pandemic. Other surveys in Brazil also confirm that political polarization has a major influence on compliance with preventive measures.

But beyond these effects, the threat of corona is taken seriously by most Brazilians. A survey conducted by the Quaest Institute in Brazil between 19th and 23rd March showed that 85% of respondents considered the pandemic to be very serious and only 2% did not. A majority of the population (more than 60% across all age groups, income, political and religious beliefs) did not believe that the press was exaggerating about coronavirus. More than 90% of people intended to avoid public events, wash their hands more often, avoid leaving home, avoid physical proximity and cancel trips. In addition, 93% agree with the cancellation of events and 92% are in favour of increasing public health spending.

But how do such statements in surveys translate into actual behavior? In São Paulo, the most affected state in Brazil, the state government reported that on Good Friday (11 April) 57% of the population complied with the initial restrictions and distance requirements. Although the rate was higher than before, it was still far from what the authorities consider to be ideal for preventing the spread of the virus. For this to happen, compliance would have to be at least 70%. The data was collected by telephone signal using a technique called georeferencing, with aggregated, anonymized data. The state can do this electronically in its 645 municipalities. This allows a comparatively accurate measurement of compliance in the population compared to other countries, considering that very few people leave their homes without a mobile phone. The results showed that the compliance with the measures in the population is still too low. If the level of compliance does not increase, the responsible governor confirmed, fines must be imposed, or more stringent measures taken. At the same time, on May 8, 2020, the initial restrictions were extended until the end of May 2020, despite warnings from President Jair Bolsonaro.

The institutional order and the repeated „flirt“ with the dictatorship

On 6 February, President Jair Bolsonaro approved Law No 13.979 / 2020 so that the Government had the basis to take measures, if necessary, to halt the progression of the coronavirus epidemic. Although there had not yet been any confirmed cases in Brazil, the number of authorizations that the government has had with this law has made many people sit up and take notice. However, the rules will only apply until the WHO no longer considers the virus a „public health emergency“. In Brazil, too, numerous measures were subsequently adopted in accordance with WHO recommendations. The staging of the populist president and the measures actually taken in the executive branch in Brazil differ considerably.

Despite all the uncertainties, it is once again apparent that state forms of organization, federal structures and separation of powers are a guarantee of continuity and a stumbling block to political change, even in times of crisis. This may not always be helpful for politicians who claim for change, but in times of crisis such as this one, as is currently the case in Brazil, populist rulers are kept in a tight rein as long as they fail to transform the institutional order in a dictatorial manner. And this does not seem to be the case at the moment. Let us hope that these constitutional elements of the political system in Brazil will keep it on track for a longer time and that the repeated flirtation with the dictatorship will at some point belong to the history of endless political stagings. Unfortunately, however, we cannot know this at present.

Sources and media reports

[3] Amado, Guilherme (2020). Isolamento cai em 26 dos 27 estados brasileiros; veja números. Època.

Busch, Alexander (2020). Das Militär regiert: Wie Bolsonaro die Demokratie unterwandert. Handelsblatt.

Fellet, Jaos (2020). Coronavirus ‚could wipe out Brazil’s indigenous people‘. BBC News.

Itatiaia (2020) Maioria dos brasileiros considera pandemia de Covid-19 muito grave e é favorável ao isolamento.

[2] Kirk, Semple and Azam Ahmed (2020). Murder Rates Were Staggering. The Virus Has Brought Some Quiet, for Now. The New York Times.

Macrotrends (2020) Brazil Poverty Rate 1981-2020.

Marins, Carolina. Felipe Amorim e Rodrigo Mattos (2020) Registros e falta de autópsia indicam mais mortos do que índice oficial. UOL.

Quintino, Larissa (2020) Isolamento social em SP sobe de 47% para 57% na sexta de feriado. Veja.

Senado notìcias (2020) Governo pedirá reconhecimento de calamidade pública no país.

Spring, Jake. Eduardo Simões. Bruno Kelly (2020). As deaths mount in Brazil’s Amazon, official COVID-19 toll under scrutiny. Thomson Reuters.

UOL: Folha de S. Paulo (2020) Governadores fecham estradas e vetam ônibus de outros estados.

UOL: Folha de S. Paulo (2020) Lo que Bolsonaro ha hecho para enfrentar las medidas contra el avance del coronavirus.

UOL: Folha de S. Paulo (2020) Mais de 5.000 presos deixam prisões em três estados devido ao coronavírus.

UOL: Folha de S. Paulo (2020). MPF pede multa de R$ 100 mil a Bolsonaro por descumprir decisão sobre quarentena.

Veja (2020). Coronavírus: tráfico e milícia impõem toque de recolher em favelas do Rio.

Walter, Jan D. (2020) Corona-Chaos: Ist Brasilien das neue Epizentrum der Pandemie? DW.

[1] Zanini, Fàbio (2020). 28% dos brasileiros não fazem isolamento contra coronavírus, diz Datafolha.


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