Between a rock and a hard place, Bolsonaro favors economy over health

. Mar 25, 2020
Between a rock and a hard place, Bolsonaro favors economy over health Photo: Isac Nóbrega/PR

Addressing the nation on Tuesday evening, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro complained that the country “must return to normality,” speaking out against nationwide isolation measures to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, urging people to get back to work and for schools to resume lessons. This discourse is obedient to U.S. President Donald Trump’s line that “the cure must not be worse than the problem,” which suggests that Brazil and the U.S. will engage in a balancing act between human life and the economy.

One of the justifications for this line of thinking is that a Covid-19-induced recession would create its own health problems for the population.

There is some scientific

backing to this: a <a href="">study published in November 2019</a> in online scientific journal <em>Lancet Global Health</em> traced a link between economic recession and all-cause mortality rate during Brazil&#8217;s financial crisis of 2014-2016. The researchers found that a 1-percentage-point increase in unemployment was associated with a 0.50 increase in mortality rate per 100,000 people, largely due to cancer and cardiovascular disease. </p> <p>With restrictive measures on businesses around Brazil, demand for non-essential products will dwindle and unemployment rates are set to sky-rocket as an immediate knock-on effect. Preliminary calculations by respected economist Helio Zylberstajn suggest <a href="">unemployment could rise by 10 percentage points</a> — extrapolated to the <em>Lancet</em> study, this would result in a 5-percent bump in Brazil&#8217;s mortality rate.</p> <h2>Foot in mouth</h2> <p>This is potentially what prominent business owner Junior Durski was <em>trying</em> to say when he <a href="">claimed</a> that Brazil &#8220;cannot stop because of 5,000 or 7,000 people dying.&#8221; Mr. Durski, owner of the upmarket burger chain Madero — whose slogan is, in English, &#8216;The Best Burger in the World&#8217; — is a self-confessed Bolsonaro supporter and appears to share his president&#8217;s poor bedside manner.</p> <p>&#8220;Brazil cannot handle a stoppage like this. The consequences on the economy will be much greater than the people who will die now due to the coronavirus,&#8221; Mr. Durski added.</p> <p>Indeed, economics professor Tyler Cowen <a href="">wrote in <em>Bloomberg</em></a> this week that the Covid-19 economy is set to look similar to <a href="">World War II</a>.</p> <p>For Brazil, the official GDP estimate for 2020 is still an increase of 0.02 percent. This outlook is expected to become recessive at its next update. Meanwhile, analysts at Itaú have projected contraction of 0.7 percent, and Goldman Sachs says Brazil is in for a drop of 0.9 percent. All of these forecasts are likely to get worse as time goes on.</p> <p>But there is also a suggestion that without effective confinement measures to restrict the spread of the virus, the inevitable post-Covid-19 recession will drag on for even longer. &#8220;The more mistakes we make now, the harder the post-crisis [scenario] will be,&#8221; <a href=";">said</a> economist Zeina Latif, speaking to <em>MyNews</em>.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/1616974"><script src=""></script></div> <h2>To isolate, or not to isolate?</h2> <p>The disagreement around how Brazil should tackle the Covid-19 pandemic centers around the unthinkable balance between the value of human life and the performance of the domestic economy. As things stand, this is embodied in the debate over whether Brazil should be enforcing isolation and restricting the operations of businesses, or whether the country should continue working.</p> <p>President Jair Bolsonaro is a firm believer in the latter. In his address on Tuesday night, he spoke of his desire to impose &#8220;vertical isolation&#8221; on the population; that is, only the over 60s and those with underlying health issues would stay at home, the rest would return to work. Mr. Bolsonaro omitted himself from this demographic though, saying his &#8220;past as an athlete&#8221; meant that the coronavirus wouldn&#8217;t affect him.</p> <p>Brazil&#8217;s 27 states, on the other hand, are on the side of a &#8220;horizontal approach&#8221; to isolation, meaning everyone who can should remain at home and avoid the risk of spreading and contracting the virus. While this will certainly make life difficult for business owners, infectious disease specialists have highlighted drastic improvements in mortality and sickness as isolation measures become stricter.</p> <p>For the time being, the states&#8217; way of thinking is winning out, with several governors promoting a form of insurrection against the federal administration. The governor of Goiás state Ronaldo Caiado, for instance, a former ally of Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s, declared this morning that he has cut ties with the president, saying proposals for vertical isolation &#8220;will not reach Goiás.&#8221;&nbsp;

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Euan Marshall

Originally from Scotland, Euan Marshall is a journalist who ditched his kilt and bagpipes for a caipirinha and a football in 2011, when he traded Glasgow for São Paulo. Specializing in Brazilian soccer, politics and the connection between the two, he authored a comprehensive history of Brazilian soccer entitled “A to Zico: An Alphabet of Brazilian Football.”

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