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What will Brazilian society look like after the pandemic?

. Jun 14, 2020
What will Brazilian society look like after the pandemic? Despite the pandemic, anti-Bolsonaro activists are taking to the streets. Photo: Alf Ribeiro/Shutterstock

Brazil might be the worst hit country by the Covid-19 pandemic in the world. As of writing, the country has 850,796 cases and recorded 42,791 deaths, though the real figures are likely to be significantly higher. The situation is so bleak that the government tried to hide the total number of cases and deaths on its official online dashboard. When asked about the missing numbers, President Jair Bolsonaro joked that it would make news organizations “run out of subjects to talk about.” While the crisis still has no end in sight and we may well be stuck in this half-life of social distancing and fear for years, it has not stopped many from speculating about what type of society will emerge out of this pandemic. 

At the beginning of the global coronavirus crisis, back in March — another lifetime ago — many speculated that Covid-19 might prove to be a global wakeup call: governments would return to science-based policy, regulate unfettered markets, invest properly in healthcare, take the environmental crisis seriously, and intervene to reduce inequality. After all, what was the risk of being optimistic?

</p> <p>Now only three months later, such sentiments seem hopelessly naïve. At least in the case of the Americas&#8217; two most-populated countries, Brazil and the U.S.</p> <p>Covid-19 was tipped to be &#8220;the great equalizer.&#8221; Everyone was supposed to be equally at risk from an invisible enemy, but rather predictably<a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2020/05/10/brazilian-data-shows-that-race-matters-in-the-covid-19-fight/"> class and race</a> define who is more likely to die from the disease. While the pandemic has proved to be a mirror on Brazil’s social problems, it has also revealed that nobody has anything approaching a credible solution to them. If anything, it has demonstrated the inability of existing political forces to offer a credible alternative to the existing cycle of demagoguery, polarization, and violent authoritarianism.&nbsp;</p> <p>In fairness, this is by no means confined to Brazil. The state of international cooperation and solidarity is rather dire.</p> <p>Far from being a wakeup call, it feels more and more like the pandemic will produce a worse version of the same, by worsening existing social crises and accelerating authoritarian tendencies. Some predicted the end of ‘populism’ and return to evidence-based politics but failed to see how accelerating the crisis might prove to be a survival strategy for those ‘populists’ in power. However, I very much hope that I am wrong; predicting the future is a fool’s errand, after all.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-4027238"></div> <script src="https://www.buzzsprout.com/299876/4027238-111-has-the-opposition-to-jair-bolsonaro-come-to-life.js?container_id=buzzsprout-player-4027238&#038;player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>The Great Hangover for Brazilian society</h2> <p>Lockdowns are ending in Brazil,<a href="https://brazilian.report/newsletters/brazil-daily/2020/06/10/sao-paulo-rio-reopen-supreme-court-fake-news-petrobras-oil/"> most likely prematurely</a>. In part due to the deliberate efforts of the government, the population began to feel the coercive pull of economic factors to return to the streets. But even for those who have not lost their jobs, things are hardly likely to go back to ‘normal’. After all, what can be normal after families have lost their loved ones and millions are left without work? And many more may <a href="https://brazilian.report/coronavirus-brazil-live-blog/2020/06/06/covid-19-pandemic-leading-to-other-health-crises-in-brazil/">die of illnesses unrelated to the pandemic</a>, as <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> has shown. Brazil was stuck waist-deep in political and economic crisis before the coronavirus made its unwelcome arrival on its shores.</p> <p>And that’s excluding the mental health knock-on effects of tragedy and isolation. Trauma can emerge a set of shared experiences that either produces further violence and alienation or in some cases solidarity and hope. What is needed for hope is the ability to imagine that perhaps tomorrow will be another day, a better day. While there are numerous cases of bravery and solidarity in the face of the pandemic, too often they have been a response to the indifference and incompetence of the powerful. The numerous examples of<a href="https://brazilian.report/opinion/2020/05/23/favela-black-lives-matter-brazil-rio-police-brutality/"> favela dwellers</a> organizing medical services and protective equipment are pertinent examples.</p> <p>It may of course also be the case that people just move on ignoring the costs of the pandemic, but the fact that the economy is expected to contract by at least 8 percent this year, the economic knock-on effects are unprecedented and could well dwarf those of the Great Depression. As Martin Wolf of the Financial Times <a href="https://www.ft.com/content/31eb2686-a982-11ea-a766-7c300513fe47?accessToken=zwAAAXKeGrFokc8x6yaGqYIR6tOnZnwwBRP-Rw.MEYCIQDJhy87ASc855SZnH50duZrRQB512ypEhriQCrYUMnjrQIhAJBx5ocWC2LSKryJEh_giHi-EFQ0TC9aieGWT9GrvnDX&amp;sharetype=gift?token=4461543b-a7a3-4947-9dd1-32fa23e310dd">notes</a> in reference to Covid-19’s effects on developing economics “the impact … is unlikely to be brief. Many economies and billions of people are likely to be scarred. This might be the beginning of many lost years, or even worse, for multitudes.”</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-3844634"></div> <script src="https://www.buzzsprout.com/299876/3844634-109-the-price-of-a-human-life.js?container_id=buzzsprout-player-3844634&#038;player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Government fanning the flames</h2> <p>While one should always take such measures with a pinch of salt. The<a href="http://visionofhumanity.org/indexes/global-peace-index/"> latest Global Peace Index</a> report has Brazil dropping into the red zone of high-risk countries. Brazil is ranked as the 126th least peaceful country in the world. The only countries ranked lower in South America are the still-war-ravaged Colombia and Venezuela, which remains stuck in the swamp of political turmoil and hyperinflation. According to the report, Brazil is likely to face social unrest and political turmoil due to the pandemic.&nbsp;</p> <p>President Jair Bolsonaro has just about done all he could to ensure that Brazil’s crisis will be as devastating as possible, he has consistently undermined public health responses, politicized the moment, and encouraged his supporters to attack social distancing measures. His principal response to the crisis — apart from dispatching one Health Minister after another — has been to force an unproven and possibly dangerous cure (<a href="https://brazilian.report/podcast/2020/05/27/chloroquine-bolsonaros-miracle-cure-for-covid-19-podcast/">hydroxychloroquine</a>) down the throats of his fellow countrymen in order to get people back to work. His future as president is dependent on him empowering the most ancient and venal forces in Brazilian politics.</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-3935258"></div> <script src="https://www.buzzsprout.com/299876/3935258-110-bolsonaro-s-miracle-cure-for-covid-19.js?container_id=buzzsprout-player-3935258&amp;player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <p>Instead of trying to aid vulnerable populations, security forces seem to be offering more of the same. In Rio de Janeiro, police intensified their deadly operations in the city&#8217;s favelas, refusing to stop even after the Supreme Court ordered them to decrease their violent onslaughts.</p> <p>Brazil’s political class is still locked in a cycle of opportunism, intrigue and conspiracy, instead of trying to act as a responsible unified force in response to the worst pandemic in a century. The political wounds of the recent past have yet to heal and if anything, are beginning to go septic. While there were a number of attempts to fashion some sort of a unified opposition response to Mr. Bolsonaro, <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong> showed the <a href="https://brazilian.report/power/2020/06/07/bolsonaro-opposition-in-brazil-struggles-to-bury-the-hatchet/">opposition remains directionless and hopelessly divided</a> as the country’s largest political party, the center-left Workers&#8217; Party, remains mostly absent from these efforts.&nbsp;</p> <p>As The New York Times <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/10/world/americas/bolsonaro-coup-coronavirus-brazil.html?smid=tw-nytimesworld&amp;smtyp=cur">recently noted</a>, “the crisis has grown so intense that some of the most powerful military figures in Brazil are warning of instability — sending shudders that they could take over and dismantle Latin America’s largest democracy. But far from denouncing the idea, President Jair Bolsonaro’s inner circle seems to be clamoring for the military to step into the fray.”</p> <p>Talk of a coup is in the air, considering the military more or less seems to be running most of Mr. Bolsonaro’s government and that senior cabinet ministers have been indulging in gratuitous attacks on the Supreme Court, these cannot simply be dismissed.&nbsp;</p> <p>The scars left by Covid-19 on Brazilian society will remain long after the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine a positive scenario emerging at this point in time. Even if there are competitive democratic elections in 2022, the likely death toll and economic devastation will be staggering.&nbsp;</p> <p>Unfortunately, permanent crisis continues to be a breeding ground for dystopian forms of authoritarianism. 

 
Benjamin Fogel

Benjamin Fogel is a Ph.D. candidate in Latin American History at New York University and a Contributing Editor to Jacobin Magazine.

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