This article was originally published on 14 March. The situation in Brazil has developed since, and more updates will be forthcoming, but it shows how the Bolsonaro government’s first move was to protect profits and continue attacks on the working class rather than protect public health.
The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared coronavirus (officially, Covid-19) a pandemic last Wednesday (11/3). This is a public health situation in which a disease spreads throughout the world quickly and simultaneously. The first cases of internal contamination have already been diagnosed in Brazil and there are projections of an exponential growth of cases in the coming weeks.
Covid-19 in Brazil
With the arrival of the virus in Brazil, the Bolsonaro government began minimizing the impact of the disease in the country. The intentions of the government were best expressed by Economy Minister, Paulo Guedes, who declared: "I would like to know if the Legislature will approve the regulatory framework of basic sanitation, as well as the privatization of Eletrobras". Guedes' justification is that the sale of Eletrobras and the openness to private investment in basic sanitation will generate income for the government and thus enable the fight against the new virus. If money is missing, why not stop the payment of foreign debt, instead?
The statement not only makes it clear that the government's only concern is to deepen ongoing attacks, but it also highlights the fissures between the Legislature and the Executive. The president of the Chamber of Deputies, Rodrigo Maia (DEM-RJ), countered Guedes, claiming that the proposals of the "anti-coronavirus" package are mediocre. While sectors of the bourgeoisie exchange barbs to see who can be the best servant of imperialism, no effective practical action to contain the coronavirus is taken.
An example of this is the total lack of inertia of the Congress last week. The Minister of Health asked for R$5 billion to finance the activities to combat the virus. The government did not take any measures to facilitate this (for example, an emergency credit request, given the public calamity, which does not need to respect the "cap" on expenditures), and nor did the Congress take any initiative to unlock R$5 billion from other parts of the budget.
While this is happening, one of the few measures that went towards benefiting the poor, the extension of Continued Benefit – paid to those over 65 who are not entitled to retirement – overturning a veto by Bolsonaro, was then "suspended" by the Court of Auditors union.
In theory, this is an "auxiliary" body of Congress, but in practice it remains "above" the will of the representatives elected by the people.
Parliamentarians are caught up in playing games with the budget instead of approving the necessary money for the health service. Minister Guedes is looking at measures to "support" airlines and tourism companies, which are "suffering" from the crisis. That is, there is no money for the poor. But for the "suffering" companies, there's plenty.
Healthcare in Brazil
The health sector structure in Brazil cannot cope with the expected level of coronavirus cases. Mainly because of investment cuts over the last period, the approval of Constitutional Amendment 95 (which freezes the limit of public services funds for 20 years) and the instruments used by Bolsonaro to apply the amendment, such as the Decree 2,979/2019, which states the new rules that regulate the distribution of investment in the health sector.
The government knows that, with an influx of patients arriving at clinics and hospitals, the risk is that the health system will collapse and these places will turn into environments for easy proliferation of the virus. According to the Ministry of Health, as of March there have been 1,398 cases confirmed nationwide. However, Albert Einstein Hospital had already recorded 98 cases, only in São Paulo, on the same day, and these people only partially entered the account of the Ministry of Health. The government is not even capable of calculating the right statistic, let alone fighting the virus.
Rio de Janeiro illustrates the situation well. The Maternity Hospital of Acari was designated as a reference for hospitalization and treatment of coronavirus. With no other information, hundreds of people with flu-like symptoms sought treatment there. As a result, newborn babies were more vulnerable to the common flu. On top of that, according to interviews with hospital staff, no one has received information on how to proceed. The beds, which are supposedly available, are in a closed ward that is being urgently renovated. There's no news regarding hiring specific personnel for this service. It is clear that, if the epidemic goes ahead, the situation will become chaotic very quickly.
Repressive measures, such as those taken in China, Iran, Italy, and other countries, will not solve the problem. Neither will the intensification of cuts and privatizations. The measures that the bourgeoisie have been taking prove useless and more dangerous for the majority of the population, which relies on completely gutted public health systems. The crisis is exposing the rot of the capitalist regime and will only intensify popular anger towards their governments and capitalism itself.
The initial measures taken are still timid and inefficient, because serious measures imply a turnaround of the entire economic system. Some Brazilian states are canceling classes and activities that can encourage large groups of people to gather together, but there is no coordinated action nationally. Cancelling basic education classes doesn't help at all – children will stay at home, with parents being forced to work. Who's going to take care of them? In schools, they could receive hygiene instructions, learn to wash their hands properly, continue receiving food, etc. Daily hygiene measures would help much more than dropping children on the streets without any guidance.
Urgent measures to be taken
Hygiene: Any government with a minimum commitment to taking action against contamination should start by requiring all public and private companies to start stocking alcohol gel and to implement daily cleaning services immediately in all workplaces to ensure workers' health. All companies should have services that teach people how to sanitize their hands, how to use alcohol gel, combat "fake news" that hot water and tea will solve the problem etc. In addition, every company should have a temperature test kit to check for symptoms immediately and forward test material for everyone with temperature variation, coughing, sneezing, etc.
There must be mandatory, constant cleaning of all means of transport, stairs and handrails, doors and door handles in all public places (trains, subways, buses, shopping malls, shops, banks etc.)
Economy: All the necessary money must be used to fight the pandemic. To do so, EC 95 must be revoked and the payment of the debt must be suspended immediately. In addition, all private health laboratories, hospitals and clinics should be appropriated by the government and put at the service of the population.
Speculation about alcohol gel has resulted in a further 200 percent increase in the price of this product in some regions of the country. This practice should be combated by appropriating any bank or company that tries to exploit the moment for higher profits. The production of ethanol used as fuel would need to be reversed immediately for the production of alcohol gel and other disinfectant materials.
Payment of salaries for all workers quarantined for being carriers or suspected of carrying the coronavirus must be guaranteed, without the bureaucracy of waiting for reports or the "sickness benefit" of the INSS.
Health services: There must be an immediate hiring of physicians, nurses and health assistants and reopening of all hospital beds closed in recent years. There must be urgent transformation of ICUs into isolated units where patients can be hospitalized. The government should purchase as many artificial respiration machines as will be necessary. There must be tests for all who have symptoms (the test kit is produced in Brazil). Teams of nurses and assistants should be sent to visit elderly people who present symptoms in their homes, instead of being infected in health clinics.
The most urgent measures could be implemented quickly, but it is certain that there is no political will on the part of Bolsonaro’s government to do so. At the same time, the leadership of the working class – CUT, UNE, UBES, PT, PSOL etc. – simply adhere to the call for national unity by canceling the acts of the 14th and 18th, without explaining to the population that the government is responsible for the situation in public health today, and for the spread of contamination in the country.
Let’s be blunt: without emergency measures to ensure that transport, cleaning etc., are available in every place, mass gatherings or even going to the cinema can result in the spread of contamination. Fear is not unfounded, it’s very real and the government’s actions have not been helpful.
All efforts to ensure the protection of the lives of the young and the working class, and the world as a whole, must be made, but surely this is also a time when workers will raise their class consciousness. Therefore, in order to combat coronavirus, it is necessary to combat those responsible for the destruction of the SUS and Social Security. It is necessary to fight for Bolsonaro’s impeachment, for a government of workers without bosses or generals. Outbreaks and epidemics would be tackled efficiently in a society where the economy was planned, as all production efforts would be quickly redirected as needed. As long as the anarchy of production remains, humanity will remain threatened by new viruses and diseases. This is not the first and will not be the last time that the working class pays with its lives for the rotten system, so Marx and Engels' phrase is more relevant than ever: workers of the world unite.