Bolsonaro contracts coronavirus and sparks culture war

. Jul 08, 2020
Bolsonaro contracts coronavirus and sparks culture war President Jair Bolsonaro promotes hydroxychloroquine on social media. Photo: Facebook/Jair Bolsonaro

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Bolsonaro’s coronavirus infection is the latest subject of discord in Brazil. Investors twist the government’s arm on Amazon policies. Brazil’s public accounts woes. And the future for Latin American universities.

Bolsonaro’s coronavirus diagnosis becomes a cultural war

In a reality TV-like stunt, President Jair Bolsonaro announced on Tuesday he has contracted coronavirus.

And used the opportunity to double down on every talking point he has used since the beginning of the pandemic: defending hydroxychloroquine as treatment (the efficacy of which remains unproven), criticizing social isolation measures, and passing the buck on to state governors who enforced them.</p> <p><strong>Unreachable compromise? </strong>The diagnosis is a testament to how divided Brazilian society is —&nbsp;and the unlikelihood of any sort of consensus between opposing groups.</p> <ul><li>On one side, the president seems to be trying to make himself the poster boy for his own coronavirus message, putting himself forward as living proof that Covid-19 is nothing more than &#8220;catching a cold.&#8221;</li><li>On the other hand, some of his detractors don&#8217;t even believe he has actually been infected, citing the <a href="">scandal around his March test results</a> as justification. Mr. Bolsonaro took three tests in March, all under aliases, and hid the results for two months. Now, he took the initiative to share a test taken in his own name.</li><li>While many opponents on social media even began wishing the president&#8217;s death as punishment for his Covid-19 denialism, this sentiment reached as high as Brazil&#8217;s biggest newspaper, Folha de S.Paulo, where prominent columnist Hélio Schwartsman published an op-ed entitled &#8220;<a href="">Why I hope Bolsonaro dies</a>.&#8221; He says that the far-right leader&#8217;s death would serve as a cautionary tale to radicals who dismiss the coronavirus. &#8220;The president&#8217;s death is philosophically defensible if we are sure that it will mean fewer people will die [of Covid-19].&#8221;</li></ul> <p><strong>Why it matters.</strong> Brazilian politics has become toxic to a point in which no one really knows what can be believed. And that&#8217;s dangerous for the future of democracy.</p> <p><strong>Can Bolsonaro&#8217;s strategy work?</strong> Most Brasília insiders disagree. Championing his own potentially quick and painless recovery would come across as dismissive in a country where 66,700 people have died so far. Moreover, studies suggest infection rates are going up — which means a second wave could be coming, before the first has even ended. That would be devastating to the economy. And there is no political stunt capable of compensating the popularity loss an economic depression would cause.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-4486823"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2><strong>Pressure from foreign investors humbles government</strong></h2> <p>After foreign investors and leaders of 38 huge companies publicly pressured the government to enforce environmental controls, the Bolsonaro administration is set to yield. Vice President Hamilton Mourão — recently charged with running the National Amazon Council —&nbsp;will promise a more strict approach to deforestation, banning any kind of fires within the Amazon and the Pantanal regions. In other biomes, however, controlled fires will be allowed.</p> <p><strong>Why it matters.</strong> It could be a turning point for a government that celebrated the pandemic as an opportunity to surreptitiously change environmental regulations. But one must wait for concrete results before celebrating.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2><strong>The woes of Brazil&#8217;s public accounts</strong></h2> <p>The dire situation of Brazil&#8217;s public accounts predates the coronavirus. Last year, Congress had to step in and allow the government to raise its debt by BRL 240 billion (USD 44.6 billion) to avoid a breach in fiscal responsibility laws. A new report by the Treasury Department, however, shows that the state of federal accounts would be much better if states actually paid back their dues with the federal administration.</p> <p><strong>Current status.</strong> As of 2019, the government&#8217;s net worth — the difference between all assets and liabilities — was minus-BRL 2.9 trillion. This number was reached by an increasing social security deficit — despite 2019&#8217;s sweeping pension reform — and the fact that the federal administration is owed BRL 4.2 trillion in tax credits and debts.</p> <p><strong>How did we get here?</strong> Only 15 percent of these tax credits are expected to be recovered. A textbook case of that is the jump in provisions from judicial losses — going from BRL 170 billion in 2018 to BRL 681 billion in 2019.</p> <p><strong>Snowball effect.</strong> Nearly 42 percent of the loans provided by the federal government in 2019 (BRL 624.4 billion) were directed to states and municipalities. Of those, roughly BRL 558 billion were to refund states&#8217; and municipalities&#8217; debts. However, since 2014, repayments have not even been enough to cover interests.</p> <ul><li>Despite returning billions in the past few years, public banks still owe BRL 266.4 billion to the Treasury Department. The National Development Bank alone makes up for 76 percent of this amount.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;</li></ul> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/3114371" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p><strong>Assets.</strong> Privatizations are seen as a way to make money. The report shows that the government had BRL 1.3 trillion in property assets — with highways and railways accounting for BRL 330 billion.</p> <p><strong>Why it matters.</strong> Data shows how imperative an administrative reform will be to restrain public spending, especially after the massive fiscal effort imposed by the pandemic.</p> <p><em>— with Natália Scalzaretto</em>&nbsp;</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2><strong>Brazilian institutions dominate Latin America&#8217;s top universities ranking</strong></h2> <p>The 2020 table of Latin America&#8217;s best universities, compiled by British publication Times Higher Education, has been released —&nbsp;and Brazil dominates across the board. The country had 61 institutions featured in the ranking, twice as many as Chile — the country with the second-most mentions — and is home to seven of the top ten universities in the region.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-table" data-src="visualisation/3113978" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p><strong>Why it matters.</strong> Quality universities are pivotal to a country&#8217;s social and technological development. A 2016 study revealed that an increase in the number of students in higher education institutions is associated with a spike in average wages, employment rates, and per capita income in Brazil.</p> <p><strong>Looming crisis?</strong> Back in 2018, we at <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> pointed out that while Brazilian top universities have been hotbeds of state-of-the-art research, the country’s institutions are in a <a href="">precarious financial situation</a>. Earlier this year, the Global Talent Competitiveness Index ranked Brazil 80th out of 132 in its ability to <a href="">attract, retain, and train talented professionals</a> in the age of artificial intelligence —&nbsp;many of our most skilled workers are fleeing the country in what is known as a &#8216;brain drain.&#8217;</p> <ul><li>Reporter Natália Scalzaretto has shown how Covid-19 widens the <a href="">education gap between rich and poor</a> students. Government data states that 77 percent of students enrolled in the National University Entrance Exam (or <a href="">Enem</a>) don&#8217;t have access to the internet.&nbsp;</li></ul> <p><strong>Glass half full.</strong> As THE points out, universities in Brazil and Latin America are proving their value and resilience. For Marcelo Knobel, rector of Brazil’s University of Campinas, the coronavirus has led to “a turning point” in science engagement.</p> <p><strong>Meanwhile … </strong>Brazil still doesn&#8217;t have an <a href="">Education Minister</a>, almost three weeks since the controversial Abraham Weintraub was dismissed from his post.</p> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>What else you need to know today</h2> <ul><li><strong>Agribusiness 1.</strong> Brazil&#8217;s agribusiness sector has grown 3.78 percent over the year&#8217;s first four months, according to the Center for Advanced Studies in Applied Economics (Cepea). All sectors saw a positive performance — especially in the cattle segment, which had an 8-percent growth over that span. Meat exports jumped 50 percent, with sales to Asia soaring 83 percent. Our <a href="">latest Weekly Report</a> explained why Brazil&#8217;s agro has been an outlier in an otherwise dreadful economic scenario.</li><li><strong>Agribusiness 2.</strong> The Brazilian association of vegetable oil industries projects the lowest soybean stocks on record for 2020, at just 669,000 tons. &#8220;It is possible that Brazil will go until the 2021 harvest without stocks,&#8221; warned Enrique Erize, of consultancy firm Nóvitas. Brazil may have to import soybeans from other Mercosur countries or slash exports of soybean crush.</li><li><strong>Fake news. </strong>Brazil&#8217;s <a href="">anti-fake news bill</a> has advanced swiftly in Congress — and has worried freedom of speech advocates. David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, said the bill raises risks to netizens&#8217; right to privacy. He is particularly concerned with an article forcing messaging companies to create a ‘forwarding chain,’ a sort of flow chart that would allow law enforcement to trace the exact path of a piece of information.</li><li><strong>Credit.</strong> A São Paulo state bank has opened two special credit lines for so-called &#8220;<a href="">individual microentrepreneurs</a>&#8221; — who own individual firms with annual revenue of under BRL 81,000. One allows loans of up to BRL 15,000 with zero interest. Small businesses have struggled to have access to credit as banks become more risk-averse — despite the fact that the government is taking the lion&#8217;s share of the risk in corporate loans during the coronavirus pandemic.

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