Brazil: sick and starving

The Bolsonaro regime’s handling of the pandemic in Brazil has been catastrophic. 400,000 people have died (officially), the healthcare system is collapsing and now hunger is rampant. The wretched capitalist system in Brazil has created a humanitarian nightmare and an ideal breeding ground for new, more dangerous variants. Even the ruling class is beginning to distance themselves from Bolsonaro as the mood in society turns to bitter anger against the regime.


The COVID-19 crisis in Brazil has reached critical levels, with 3,000 deaths registered daily on average. The official total death toll has doubled since January to 400,000. This includes a disturbing number of young people, even children and infants, mostly from poor families.

The health service has collapsed. The P1 variant of the virus, which originated in Brazil, has become a dire threat to the whole of Latin America, and the entire world.

Fault for this disaster lies primarily with the reactionary president Jair Bolsonaro, who has spent the last year downplaying the dangers of the coronavirus, calling concerned Brazilians “sissies”, fighting tooth-and-nail against lockdowns, and scaremongering about vaccines – even bizarrely suggesting they will turn people into crocodiles.

He is now embroiled in a political crisis, with widening sections of the ruling class moving against him, although in truth the entire political establishment has blood on its hands.

Bolsonaro’s slavish devotion to capitalism and unwillingness to shut down the economy have condemned the Brazilian people to this catastrophe. Workers and the organised left must mobilise their forces to bring down the vile regime, and carry out the necessary measures to resolve this public health crisis.

New variant

The highly transmissible new strain of COVID-19 currently sweeping Brazil emerged in Manaus, which was the centre of a coronavirus “massacre” in Amazonas that began when the pandemic first hit the country.

Local authorities failed to lock down and isolate the city, meaning the P1 variant burned across the entire country in a matter of weeks.

According to a study by a UK-Brazilian team of researchers from the likes of Oxford University, Imperial College London the University of São Paulo, the P.1 variant is between 1.4 and 2.2 times more transmissible than other variants circulating in Brazil.

It is also reportedly “able to evade 25-61 per cent of protective immunity elicited by previous infection”, which increases the levels of reinfection, and may reduce the efficacy of some vaccines.

It is no accident that dangerous new mutations have emerged in countries like Brazil, Britain and India, where governments took a lax attitude to lockdowns early on. Large, unvaccinated populations provide an ideal breeding ground for these strains.

In the words of Brazilian scientist Miguel Nicolelis, “Brazil is like a brewery and it’s brewing variants left, right and centre.”

P1 is not confined to one country. The pandemic is accelerating all across Latin America, including in Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela, and Uruguay, with the Brazilian variant driving the spike in infections.

Last week, Latin America (which contains 8 percent of the world’s population) accounted for 35 percent of all coronavirus deaths in the world.

brazil deaths Image Alex Pazuello SemcomMore than 400,000 people have now died of the virus in Brazil. As the virus is allowed to rip out of control, new, more infectious and vaccine-resistant mutations like the P.1 variant are increasingly likely to evolve / Image: Alex Pazuello, Semcom

In Lima, for example, there are queues of patients for hospital beds, with younger victims being prioritised, while older and less survivable cases are left to their fate. Rommel Heredia, who lost his mother, father, and brother to the virus commented:

“People are dying because they can’t get ICU beds,” Heredia said. “This is like war”.

The situation is so bad that there are reports of medics accepting bribes to offer up hospital beds. “It was that or let her die,” said Dessiré Nalvarte, 29, a Colombian lawyer who admitted she helped pay $265 to a man who claimed to be the head of the ICU at a hospital in order to get treatment for a family friend.

The variant has also travelled further afield, including the USA and the UK. Many countries in Europe have now closed their borders to Brazil to prevent P1 from spreading to their shores.

“The Europeans are right to be afraid about what is happening in Brazil,” said Marcos Boulos, an infectious disease specialist from the University of São Paulo. “The more transmission there is, the more variants appear… The situation is very, very serious.”

Health sector collapsing

The health ministry (which is now on its fourth minister since the start of the pandemic) is under heavy political fire for being totally unprepared for this crisis. The health system is failing to cope, as hospitals are inundated with COVID patients.

Partly, this is down to appalling direction from the federal government, which in addition to opposing lockdowns has been sending ‘COVID kits’ to hospitals including ineffective (and even harmful) treatments like hydroxychloroquine, favoured by former US President Donald Trump.

But the pandemic also took a sledgehammer to a health service undermined by years of austerity and mismanagement, including a 2016 constitutional amendment by the Michel Temer government that froze health spending for a period of 20 years. Even prior to this, under the Workers’ Party (PT) governments of Lula and Dilma Rousseff, there was a decrease in investment in the public health service.

Then Bolsonaro and former Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta carried out a swathe of attacks early in the president’s term, including dismantling Brazil’s primary care policy, cutting medical research funds, and ending the Mais Médicos (‘more doctors’) programme to get more trained medics into the public Unified Health System (SUS), while at the same time barring Cuban medics, who offered their services to Brazil, from entering the country.

This situation has been exacerbated by general attacks on health workers by the federal government in terms of outsourcing, privatisation, and low wages, to the point that 45 percent of medics need more than one job to survive.

And overworked health workers in overcrowded hospitals are themselves highly vulnerable to contagion, with Brazil now responsible for 23 percent of all nursing deaths worldwide.

The sum of all this is a public healthcare sector coming apart at the seams. By contrast, private medical operators are celebrating accumulated net profits of 15bn reais during 2020: a 66 percent increase over 2019.

Malnutrition

In a testament to the scale of this disaster, 86 percent of Brazilians now know someone who has died of the virus. In the country’s largest cemetery in São Paulo, where there would ordinarily be 30-40 burials a day, now there are 90.

In a worrying development, the proportion of younger, and otherwise healthy people victims rose by 28 percent in February.

Women aged 20 to 39 were five times more likely to die from coronavirus in February than in November and December. And as of April, it is estimated that over 2,000 children under nine, including 1,000 infants, have died from the virus.

This cannot be explained by the mutant strain alone. There is an obvious class aspect to these young deaths, with an observational study carried out by the São Paolo school of medicine identifying socioeconomic vulnerabilities as risk factors for COVID-19-related deaths in children.

“Most vulnerable are black children, and those from very poor families,” said Dr Fatima Marinho from the University of São Paolo.

“These are the children most at risk of death,” she said. “We went from 7 million to 21 million people below the poverty line in one year. So people are also going hungry. All of this is impacting mortality.”

The issue of malnutrition is increasingly dire. During the first coronavirus wave last year, the government begrudgingly launched an emergency relief effort.

Under this scheme, 67 million unemployed and informally employed people, prevented from working by lockdowns, could claim a monthly salary (“coronavouchers”) of 600 reais ($107 USD) from April to August 2020, which was reduced to 300 reais in December last year.

Brazil favela Image Steve Martinez FlickrOn top of the horrors of the virus, 117 million people now face food insecurity. Hunger, on top of overcrowding, is making the poor even more vulnerable to the disease. The disease has become a plague on the poor / Image: Steve Martinez, Flickr

But now, as Bolsonaro admitted at the start of the year, “Brazil is broke”, with government debt at around 90 percent of GDP. The coronavouchers programme was previously suspended, and has now been reintroduced at 250 reais on average per person, with far fewer people eligible.

The result is that 117m people (over half of Brazil’s population) have faced food insecurity in 2020, up from 85m in the previous two years. And 19m people have gone without food, almost double the number of 2018.

In favelas like Heliopolis in São Paulo, queues run around the block for charitable handouts of pasta with meat and a portion of rice, two packets of biscuits, and a carton of milk. This must be shared between a whole household and is typically their only meal of the day.

The lack of nourishment makes these communities even more vulnerable to the coronavirus, which coupled with limited social distancing and a lack of access to medical attention means the burden of this pandemic is falling heavily on the poor.

Vaccine debacle

Bolsonaro’s criminal policy towards the virus has included flirtation with vaccine scepticism. Despite the fact that thousands of Brazilians were test subjects for vaccine trials, the government dragged its feet on acquiring a supply of its own.

Monica de Bolle, a Brazil expert at the Peterson Institute in Washington describes: “a complete lack of planning. In December, they started to think about a vaccination campaign but they didn’t even have enough syringes. It was a complete mess.”

Reports have emerged that the health ministry ignored at least 11 offers to supply vaccines, including 70 million doses of the Pfizer product in August 2020, which would have arrived in December.

There were also six failed attempts by the Chinese government to sell supplies of CoronaVac, which was tested extensively in Brazil, before an agreement was finally reached.

Discussions between the government and vaccine suppliers are conducted behind closed doors, so we can only guess at their motives when it comes to these failed negotiations.

But we also know Bolsonaro was committed to achieving natural herd immunity rather than conducting a widespread vaccination campaign. In his opinion, this “little flu” should be allowed to sweep through the population, rather than bothering with lockdowns and vaccines.

The Brazilian government also refused to sign on to the WHO-led COVAX programme until their third invitation, allegedly because the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarded the programme as part of a “globalist” agenda.

Pressure from Brazil’s main imperialist ally, the USA, could also be a factor, with the government encouraged to refuse ‘vaccine diplomacy’ from America’s rivals, including Russia and China.

Now that the federal government has finally been forced to advance its vaccination programme, under pressure from the masses and sections of the bourgeoisie itself, the upsurge of the pandemic in India (the world’s largest vaccine manufacturer), in turn exacerbated by the vaccine nationalism of rich countries, has led to global shortages.

And with the imperialists jealously guarding their supplies, Brazil is left scrabbling for sellers.

Several cities have run out of CoronaVac, meaning that thousands of people are being left without their second dose of the booster, which is supposed to be delivered 15 days after their first shot.

In an event with health experts on Tuesday, Economy Minister Paulo Guedes reiterated Trump’s rhetoric that China had “created the virus”. This led to a terse reminder by Beijing’s ambassador that CoronaVac is the main vaccine used in Brazil: a veiled warning for the economy minister not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Another avenue for vaccines was closed down when Brazil’s health regulator rejected imports of the Russian-made Sputnik V.

This was based on claims that the doses sent for approval carried a live version of adenovirus, which causes the common cold, and is used in Sputnik V as a vector to carry DNA instructions to human cells to prepare the immune system for the coronavirus.

If true (which the supplier denies), this would likely be due to a manufacturing error. But it has also been reported that the US is displeased with Russia supplying its vaccine to ten countries in Latin America, which it regards as a soft-power tool in its own ‘backyard’.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the result is that the Brazilian people are left with a dwindling supply of vaccines in the middle of a deadly upsurge of infections.

By the start of April, 15.02 percent of the population received one dose of the vaccine and only 7.47 percent had received both doses.

This would not have been the case had the government got its act together last year and secured vaccines when case numbers had plateaued. But their priority was getting the economy going again, not preparing for another wave of the pandemic.

Bolsonaro’s support imploding

The Brazilian people can plainly see that Bolsonaro’s criminal irresponsibility and refusal to take the virus seriously has led directly to this state of affairs.

A survey in March found that 54 percent of Brazilians regard Bolsonaro’s handling of the crisis as bad or awful, and another found that 46 percent are in favour of his impeachment, up from 42 percent in January.

Aside from putting pressure on state governments to keep the economy open, he has repeatedly refused to abide by social distancing measures in public, including holding multiple public ceremonies without any facemasks at the Presidential Palace.

Bolsonaro has slightly shifted his tone in past weeks: encouraging vaccinations in a recent television broadcast and occasionally sporting a facemask in public appearances.

But as recently as this month he was threatening to use loyal elements of the armed forces to prevent the imposition of social distancing measures to prevent people from attending religious ceremonies.

This farce has gone on long enough, and palpable resentment is building against the president, whose performance is now rated as bad/terrible by over 50 percent of the population: his worst rating since coming to power.

On top of the pandemic itself, the economic impact of this crisis is dramatic. A contraction of 5.5 percent in Brazil’s GDP is expected in the first quarter of 2021, followed by a tepid recovery of 1.5 percent.

Aside from ballooning debt, inflation is taking off, which forced the central bank to raise interest rates.

Prices rose 5.2 percent in February, leading Maria Izabel de Jesus, a retired 72-year-old from the east of São Paulo, to say food has become unaffordable. “It’s too much. You can't buy anything.”

In response to this economic hardship, graffiti has cropped up around Brazil denouncing “Bolsocaro”, a portmanteau combining Bolsonaro’s name with the Portuguese word for “expensive” (caro).

Splits at the top

Aside from seething public anger, a political noose is closing around Bolsonaro’s neck, with wider sections of the ruling class and political establishment moving against him.

Congress has launched an inquiry into the president’s handling of the pandemic, conducted by eleven of the country’s senators, informally known as the CPI da Morte (“death committee”). This inquiry is set to last 90 days, which will be of slim comfort to the thousands who will perish in the meantime.

Of course, many of these so-called ‘anti-Bolsonaro’ politicians were part of state administrations that kept non-essential businesses running while ICUs were overflowing during the first wave.

Additionally, hundreds of Brazil’s top capitalists and business leaders, including a former central bank chief and the country’s richest bankers, signed an open letter to the government demanding stronger action to speed up vaccinations and encourage the use of face masks.

These two-faced hypocrites were only too happy with Bolsonaro when he was selling off huge chunks of the state and rewarding them with massive windfalls. But with the incompetent administration totally losing control of the pandemic, and with the economy in turmoil, they are changing their tune.

These opportunistic manoeuvres are nothing but the ‘sensible’ wing of the bourgeoisie trying to squeeze out an erratic and discredited administration, wearing down Bolsonaro to prepare the ground for the 2022 elections. They are also using the pressure of the crisis to squeeze the government for more backhanders from the public coffers in the meantime.

The president’s inner circle is also collapsing into recriminations. The armed forces have been a consistent base of support for Bolsonaro, but were rocked by the unexpected firing of the defence minister General Fernando Azevedo e Silva. A day later, the heads of the army, navy and air force all resigned in protest.

This came after the military brass expressed cold feet at Bolsonaro invoking the army into his battle against lockdowns, saying in March, “my army won’t go into the streets to force people to stay at home.”

In light of his gross mishandling of this emergency, Brazil’s political and business elite can see that Bolsonaro is a spent force at best, and a potentially volatile presence at worst.

Some are weighing up the possibility of supporting PT figurehead, Lula, who is free to run against Bolsonaro following the overturning of corruption charges and is currently polling ahead of the president.

Brazil Lula Image Valter CampanatoABrThe catastrophic collapse of support for Bolsonaro's regime has lead some in the ruling class to see a return of Lula as a potential safety valve. But shared responsibility for the horrors we are witnessing belongs with the whole ruling class / Image: Valter CampanatoABr

Maílson da Nóbrega, the former finance minister stated: “I see many people saying that if the situation is between Bolsonaro and Lula, that they would hold their nose and vote for Lula.”

The ruling class doesn’t want to rely on Lula, and is scrambling around for a traditional bourgeois candidate with sufficient popularity to defeat Bolsonaro whom they can back.

But in the absence of other options, given that Lula is well-placed to beat Bolsonaro, sections of the ruling class are considering using him as a safety valve to let off the boiling anger in society in a controlled way, rather than risk an uncontrolled eruption.

Ultimately, the entire disgraced political establishment is responsible for this nightmare. This includes the PT and Lula, who carried out attacks on the working class in power, and have at every stage held back the masses from an open confrontation with Bolsonaro.

Fora Bolsonaro! Fight COVID with class struggle!

None of this was inevitable. The COVID-19 variant rampaging through Brazil and Latin America is the product of Bolsonaro’s criminal irresponsibility, and the ruinous, short-sighted policies of imperialism.

The massed forces of the working class are the only ones capable of wresting political and economic power from the reactionary capitalist class, but their leaders are holding them back.

The PT and labour leaders strongly resisted our Brazilian comrades’ attempt to raise the slogan Fora Bolsonaro (“Bolsonaro Out”).

When it was adopted by mass protests of workers and youth regardless, the left leaders tried to steer it into the safe, legalistic channels of impeachment or focusing on getting Lula elected in 2022, making alliances with sections of the bourgeoisie in the process.

The masses cannot wait for corrupt politicians to remove Bolsonaro through an impeachment process, or for the results of an inquiry, or for the 2022 election.

Impeachment Image Senado Federal FlickrSome have raised the slogan of impeaching Bolsonaro, but the masses cannot wait for the ruling class to move against Bolsonaro. The people dying in droves now and the trade unions and the left must mobilise now / Image: Senado Federal, Flickr

People are dying in their droves now. A mass struggle by workers, youth, and the Unified Workers’ Central (CUT) to overthrow this murderous regime is needed – now. Bolsonaro and the pandemic must be fought on a class basis.

Therefore, a general strike must be organised in defence of the lives of working people, with demands including the end of Bolsonaro’s government, lockdowns with full pay, and a nationally-managed public health campaign to treat and vaccinate the whole of the population, paid for by the rich.

As part of this battle, on 1 May, our comrades in Brazil launched their campaign for a ‘National Meeting of Struggle: Down with the Bolsonaro government! For a workers’ government, without bosses or generals!’ More than a thousand people have already signed up.

A historic battle is being prepared, not just in Brazil, but all across Latin America, where the pandemic has sharpened all the social contradictions of hunger, unemployment, poverty, and state violence.

In fact, this has already begun, with a strike movement in Chile to force the government to release pension funds, a social eruption in Paraguay, the electoral success of a self-described Marxist-Leninist trade union leader in Peru, and a triumphant struggle in Colombia against Duque’s reactionary tax bill.

It is incumbent on workers and youth worldwide to offer solidarity to these workers’ struggles. The disaster we are witnessing in Latin America could place the global fight against the pandemic in jeopardy.

“Countries like Brazil… can’t just be treated as global pariahs and abandoned,” Nicolelis stated. “They need to be helped – because it’s not just their problem, it is the world’s problem.”

The only real help for the Brazilian people must come from the ranks of the international working class. A victorious class struggle to win democratic workers’ rule is the only sure way to prevent countries like Brazil from becoming factories for new mutations that can go on to reinfect millions across the entire globe.

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