Before flattening the curve, Brazilians governors push to reopen

. May 29, 2020
Political pressure and economic hardship are leading Brazilian governors to reopen their states. Data suggests it might be too soon São Paulo. Photo: Nelson Antoine/Shutterstock

On the same day Brazil topped the 25,000 mark of confirmed Covid-19 deaths, São Paulo Governor João Doria announced a plan to reopen the state’s economy. The program has five steps and is based on data such as the number of intensive care beds available per person.

São Paulo is Brazil’s wealthiest and most populated state — and battles with the highest absolute numbers for cases and casualties related to the coronavirus. Since the beginning of the outbreak in Brazil, Mr. Doria staunchly defended quarantine rules — making him one of President Jair Bolsonaro’s main political antagonists: his advocacy of quarantine measures has been in stark contrast to Mr. Bolsonaro’s open Covid-19 denialism.

But political pressure has restrained Mr. Doria from placing his state on lockdown, and is now leading him to what many regard as a rushed reopening of São Paulo.

</p> <h2>Bolsonaro v. states</h2> <p>The tug of war between the president and governors has become one of the central dynamics of Brazil’s coronavirus crisis. Since March, Mr. Bolsonaro has relentlessly ranted against social isolation measures, claiming that they would &#8220;destroy the economy&#8221; and drive the country into a recession that will be deadlier on the poor than the virus ever could.&nbsp;</p> <p>Mr. Bolsonaro&#8217;s stance has placed him on a <a href="">collision course</a> with state governors with the Supreme Court siding with the latter group — granting them jurisdiction over the matter. Now, the most powerful governor in the country is yielding to the pressure to reopen. And he is not alone.</p> <p>Meanwhile, the outbreak in Brazil shows no signs of slowing down.&nbsp;</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-chart" data-src="visualisation/2609734" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <h2>Inefficient quarantines</h2> <p>While the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths keeps rising, compliance with social isolation guidelines has gone in the opposite direction. According to data from tech company In Loco, which monitors GPS data of around 60 million cell phones, Brazil&#8217;s &#8220;social distance index&#8221; is just above 40 percent —&nbsp;well below the ideal 70-percent mark.&nbsp;</p> <p>Back in March, it hovered above 50 percent. But in May, it only reached that point twice — always on Sundays. On May 27, the nationwide index was just 41 percent — with social isolation being observed by as little as 36 percent in some states.</p> <div class="flourish-embed flourish-map" data-src="visualisation/2605855" data-url=""><script src=""></script></div> <p>Curiously, <a href="">recent polls</a> show that 60 percent of Brazilians support the idea of a lockdown —&nbsp;the strictest of measures to curb the coronavirus&#8217; spread —&nbsp;despite around the same percentage of people still circulating on the streets. The apparent contradiction is explained by political scientist Mauricio Moura, chief executive officer at pollster Ideia Big Data. According to him, there is a gap between what people support and what they actually <em>can</em> do.</p> <p>“People see Covid-19 drawing near, and many are concerned. But to abide by the rules of a lockdown, that is very difficult. It is a dilemma between what they think is right and what they can do,” Mr. Moura told <strong>The Brazilian Report</strong>.</p> <p>Mr. Moura points out that the difference between what Bolsonaro says in Brasília and what governors and mayors are saying undermines the commitment to self-isolation. “People are more inclined to listen to the leader that says what they want to hear. Those who support the president tend to be in favor of the reopening, and to think that the virus is not as dangerous as others may think.”</p> <p>The need for a public buy-in is the key reason why lockdown measures are so difficult to implement in Brazil, according to economist Thomas Conti, a professor at São Paulo&#8217;s Insper Business School. &#8220;Police forces have no scale [to ensure that people will stay home],&#8221; he <a href="">wrote</a> on Twitter.</p> <p>Matthew Richmond, a Ph.D. in Human Geography from King&#8217;s College London and research associate at the University of São Paulo, believes Brazil has <a href="">missed the beat</a> to implement more proactive measures&nbsp;— making it almost impossible to put them into action now. &#8220;If there was a moment for a possible lockdown, it passed in late March —&nbsp;when economic reserves and public support were greater. Jair Bolsonaro undermined this, but stronger measures than isolation also were never really proposed by the Health Ministry or most governors,&#8221; he says.</p> <h2>States ready to reopen</h2> <p>Besides São Paulo, other large states and major cities have announced they are relaxing quarantine, despite an increasing number of cases.</p> <p>In Rio de Janeiro state, Governor Wilson Witzel left the decision up to mayors. In the capital, where 35 percent of the state’s population lives, Mayor Marcelo Crivella said his health experts are preparing a reopening plan in six phases. “The idea is for us to launch in June a plan to have a normal life by mid-August, as deaths, hospitalizations, and infections go down,” Mr. Crivella told weekly magazine <a href="">Veja Rio</a>.</p> <p>In Minas Gerais, Governor Romeu Zema, one of the few governors who remains close to Mr. Bolsonaro since the pandemic started, has kept pushing for reopening. The second-most populated state in the country has a low number of confirmed cases, but as we showed earlier this month, Minas Gerais is a true black hole of <a href="">untested suspected cases</a>. In the state capital of Belo Horizonte, Mayor Alexandre Kalil agreed to relax the quarantine on May 25. But Mr. Kalil says he is ready to reintroduce restrictions if infection rates go up again.</p> <p>States are set to reopen even in the badly hit North. Amazonas was the first state to experience a full-scale healthcare collapse — with state capital Manaus confirming 1,271 deaths caused by the coronavirus. Still, the state is marching towards a <a href="">reopening</a>. Governor Wilson Lima, who has dealt with an impeachment process on top of the public health crisis, is willing to let stores open starting on June 1.&nbsp;</p> <p>The best example of the consequences of a rushed reopening can be found in the Southern state of Santa Catarina. The first state to reopen shops has faced a rise in the number of cases. On April 16, the reopening day, the state had confirmed 884 infections. Just 42 days later, its tally had reached 7,372 — a 734-percent bump.</p> <p>Should a similar surge in case happen nationwide, it could be nothing short of a catastrophe.

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José Roberto Castro

José Roberto covers politics and economics and is finishing a Master's Degree in Media and Globalization. Previously, he worked at Nexo Jornal and O Estado de S. Paulo.

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