Interview: Brazil’s COVID-19 Response Threatens Not Just Its Citizenry But Also the Whole World

By Ben Lyons

This interview has been translated from the original Portuguese by the author. The interviewee is a local official in a Brazilian city. Due to the volatile political climate in Brazil and sensitivity of the topic, they have requested anonymity.

I know that the situation in Brazil is very bad right now. How is it in your city/your state/your region?

Things are very bad in all of Brazil. Hospitals are almost at their occupancy limits, and there are waiting lines for ICU beds in both the public and private[1] healthcare systems. We are in rigid social isolation, a type of lockdown where only essential businesses are allowed to function.  There have been over 10,000 deaths in my state since the beginning of the pandemic. In Brazil, at this moment, almost 350,000.

What has it been like to live in your city during the pandemic?

These are difficult times that my generation has never gone through before. My city is usually a city of tourists, with a lot of sun and urban life, so the environment here is very sad. Nevertheless, because I’m in the middle class and have a guaranteed income, I can say that my own situation is comfortable – from a material perspective. Still, a large part of the population is poor and suffering greatly due to the economic crisis that COVID has brought about. The situation is very sad. Unemployed people, young people with no prospects, a population at the limit. And aside from that, the radicalism of a maddened minority of extreme denialists.

What has the federal response been like? Of the states? Of your city?

I would say that, thanks to the governments of my state and my city, we still have hope. Despite all of the difficulties, the governor of my state and the prefect of my city believe in science and have done everything in their power to combat COVID. They know that even though measures such as social isolation are unpopular, they are also completely necessary. As for the federal government, their denialist attitudes have hampered their efforts, which have convinced a part of the population to not support social isolation. Aside from this, the federal government, possibly because of denialism, has failed greatly in planning the acquisition of vaccines. Even though Pfizer offered Brazil 70 million doses of their vaccine in August of 2020, the federal government never responded. Brazil’s current record number of deaths is largely the consequence of positions such as this.

What is the opinion of the Brazilian people on COVID? Are there conspiracy theories like those in the United States? Prejudice against people who wear a mask? Resistance against the vaccine?

There’s a little bit of everything. There is a small but loud minority of denialists on social media, but in general the population is worried about both COVID and the economy. Resistance against the vaccine is a minority opinion. 84% of the population wants to take it. The problem is that we don’t have it in sufficient quantity, thanks to a lack of planning and a lack of faith in science on the part of the federal government.

I know that the predominant variant of COVID in Brazil is very dangerous. How is it affecting the response, such as it is, to the pandemic?

The Brazilian variant appears to be more contagious and possibly capable of causing more serious symptoms, and younger populations are being affected this time around. Because younger people are more resistant and stay hospitalized longer, this has had an immense effect on the response of hospitals. The number of infections has put the country at risk of imminent collapse: a collapse of the network of hospital beds, a collapse in the availability of both oxygen and medicines for intubation, and finally, a collapse in the funerary system. The situation is dire.

The actions of President Jair Bolsonaro have been described as “genocide” and “a program of extermination.” Do you agree or disagree?

The actions of the president have produced an effect similar to genocide, but I wouldn’t say that they are a program of extermination. I would say that the denialism, radicalism, and the fact that they aren’t following the science have had, as a practical consequence, the worsening of COVID and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Brazilians.

How is the pandemic affecting day-to-day life? Are there the same options of remote work and distance learning that we have in the United States? Is there prejudice against people who take them?

Schools and professional activities are distanced. But, since the population is largely poor, not everyone has access. Daily life is affected in different forms. The richest, and those in the middle class, have the comfort of their houses in every condition. The poorest people don’t have that. Large amounts of people often live in very small houses, many of which are without computers. The prefect of my city has been working hard to minimize these problems – donating tablets to some public-school students and food – but the situation is difficult.

Do you think the situation will get better – or become less worse – before the presidential election in 2022? Is there a possibility of impeachment?

I don’t think there will be impeachment because a third of voters still support Bolsonaro. Even though they are in the minority, this support would make the process of impeachment more difficult. I think that the situation will get worse this year, but depending on the pace of vaccination, it might improve. But I think that Bolsonaro will enter the election year much weaker than before.

In your opinion, what effect will the exoneration of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva[2] have on the politics around COVID?

I think that since Lula is widely heard in international circles, principally in Europe, and because he is a defender of the vaccine, this will end up putting more pressure on the federal government to acquire vaccines and promote them en masse. Right now, 80% of available vaccines are due to the efforts of the governor of the state of São Paulo – an opponent of Bolsonaro – in partnership with China. Without this initiative, the number of available vaccines would be much less.

How can the international community help Brazil in this moment? The citizens of the United States?

The US has a lot of political capital on the world stage, so American positions are important worldwide. One concern is that since the rate of viral replication in Brazil is very high[3], there will be an increase in the emergence of mutations, and that one of them will have the ability to evade immunity. This is very dangerous for the entire planet, because a mutation such as this could put the current strategy for vaccination at risk. So, if a given country is a hotspot for COVID, this is not only a danger to its population, but also to the entire world.

If international aid were offered to Brazil, do you think Bolsonaro would accept it? If not, is it possible that the international community could bypass the federal government’s barrier and give aid to the states and cities which want it?

I think it’s perfectly possible for aid to be given to the states and larger cities. For example, my city received donations of N95 masks from China last year. But I think Brazil will not stop accepting international aid. Public pressure would not permit it.

Ben Lyons is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh. He is majoring in Biology and German with minors in Portuguese and Chemistry and a related concentration in Latin American Studies. He is also an events coordinator for the Luso-Brazilian Student Association at Pitt. Upon graduating, he plans to pursue a graduate program in public health.



[1] Brazil has both the Sistema Único de Saúde – a free, public healthcare system available to everyone, regardless of income level or nationality – and a system of private healthcare primarily utilized by wealthier people.

[2] President of Brazil from 2003 to 2011

[3] Due to the extremely high rate of infection

 

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