Behind Bolsonaro’s threats to leave the World Health Organization

. Jun 10, 2020
who bolsonaro feud covid19 Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization. Photo: Getty

The coronavirus pandemic is one of the most challenging moments in the history of the World Health Organization (WHO). Beyond the responsibility of guiding the global response to the virus outbreak, since the first confirmed cases appeared in China the institution has been dealing with the distrust of several nations governed by right-wing populists — chiefly the U.S. and Brazil. On May 29, U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was pulling his country from the organization. Days later, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro threatened to follow suit.

The most explicit threat happened on June 6, when Mr. Bolsonaro said the WHO is acting politically. “The U.S. left [the organization]. We are thinking about doing that in the future. Either the WHO works without ideology, or we will be on our way, too. We don’t need people from outside to give opinions on health here.” The departure, however, would need to be approved by Congress — which would be, at best, a long shot.

</p> <p>This clash was not the first between Mr. Bolsonaro and what members of his administration call &#8220;the globalist establishment.&#8221; Nor will it be the last.&nbsp;</p> <p>On Monday, Mr. Bolsonaro misquoted a statement by Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the Covid-19 pandemic, who <a href="">suggested the spread of the coronavirus through asymptomatic patients</a> is “very rare.” Mr. Bolsonaro used this to bash state governors, saying they &#8220;stirred panic&#8221; and damaged the economy with quarantines — for nothing.&nbsp;</p> <p>On Tuesday, Dr. Van Kerkhove retracted her initial statements, saying the actual rates of asymptomatic transmission aren’t yet known. But Mr. Bolsonaro stuck with his argument, saying during a televised cabinet meeting that her words could &#8220;allow us to go back to normal.&#8221;</p> <p>In the same meeting, Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo <a href="">complained</a> about guidelines on hydroxychloroquine and asked for answers about the virus’ geographical origin. According to Mr. Araújo, there is a lack of “transparency and coherency.” As a result, Brazil has asked for an investigation against the WHO, backing an <a href="">Australia-led request</a> for a probe into the organization&#8217;s handling of the pandemic.</p> <p>“It is a systemic problem; it is not accidental. We have to examine if it is a matter of political influence, of non-state actors in WHO, of methods, we need to examine this. To this end, Brazil is proposing, together with a group of other countries, an investigation, a WHO reform process,” said Mr. Araújo.&nbsp;</p> <p>Paulo Buss, a former Brazilian representative on the WHO&#8217;s Executive Board, emphasizes the uncertainty around the coronavirus fight and politicians’ role. He points out that <a href="">science</a> is still trying to learn about the disease, its transmission, treatment, and immunity. According to the information available, advice and decisions might change, and politicians are expected to cooperate to understand the process.&nbsp;</p> <p>“A leader cannot reject international cooperation because a decision is not in line with his political conception. The choices are based on evidence, evidence that can change. Science teaches researchers humility; it should teach politicians [the same]. Politicians put something in their minds, with secondary, tertiary interests about the disease, and because of that, they start to make accusations.”</p> <figure class="wp-block-image size-large"><img src="" alt="who cabinet meeting bolsonaro" class="wp-image-42158" srcset=" 1024w, 300w, 768w, 610w, 1086w" sizes="(max-width: 1024px) 100vw, 1024px" /><figcaption>Members of the Bolsonaro administration took shots at the WHO during a meeting. Photo: Marcos Corrêa/PR</figcaption></figure> <h2>Growing controversy in the pandemic</h2> <p>Jair Bolsonaro&#8217;s foreign policy preaches against what his supporters call “globalism” and maintains a strained relationship with multilateral organizations. The problem with the WHO was intensified by the different approaches to the isolation measures. Mr. Bolsonaro has argued against quarantines since the beginning of the pandemic and distorted the <a href="">recommendations</a> of the WHO to prove his point at least once.&nbsp;</p> <p>Deisy Ventura, a professor of the medicine faculty at the University of São Paulo, analyses Brazil’s incoherent positions at the WHO. Asked if the complaints made by Mr. Araújo seemed to be fair, the answer was “no.”</p> <p>“There is no doubt that a play is being put on for the domestic audience and that it is necessary to find the culprits. It seems evident that governments that were <a href="">extremely inefficient</a> in responding to Covid-19, and that would have been able to prevent such bad results, are today the epicenter of the disease.”</p> <p>Mr. Buss recognizes the problems of the WHO, and said one of his challenges was to try to turn it into a more democratic institution, but emphasizes that the Bolsonaro government is rebelling against the organization for other reasons.&nbsp;</p> <p>“The disease has only been developing for five months. The virus is only partially known. There is an immense effort by scientists of the highest level to face something unprecedented. Great politics must understand that there can be setbacks. [The Brazilian government] takes advantage of a misinterpreted speech that pleases those who want to reopen [the economy] regardless, putting the situation of the Brazilian population at risk.”</p> <div id="buzzsprout-player-3935258"></div> <script src=";player=small" type="text/javascript" charset="utf-8"></script> <hr class="wp-block-separator"/> <h2>Unprecedented stance</h2> <p>Brazil had a central role in the WHO’s foundation when the creation of the institution was suggested, after the Second World War. A Brazilian, Marcolino Candau, was the organization&#8217;s Director-General for 20 years, leading from 1953 to 1973.&nbsp;</p> <p>Between 2018 and 2019, only a year ago, Brazil <a href="">led the Executive Board of the institution</a>. Over the decades, Brazil had a role labeled by Mr. Buss and Ms. Ventura as “very important,” “a protagonist,” “active,” “respected,” and “influential.” But that does not apply to the Bolsonaro administration, in their opinion.&nbsp;</p> <p>According to Mr. Buss, the new behavior is not related to technical decisions of the Health Ministry, but to foreign policy and ideology.</p> <p>“It is the first time that Brazil has made such a threat. Of course, Brazil has always been critical, but in a constructive way, with confidence in multilateralism. It is a new stance, but it is not alien to the rest of the government’s policies. As the WHO recommendations are not adequate to the economic, ideological, political thought of the axis represented by the government, there is a confrontation.”</p> <p>Ms. Ventura pans the changes made by Bolsonaro and says he is draining the Health Ministry’s technical knowledge and representation in multilateral organisms such as the WHO. Asked who will lose if Mr. Bolsonaro decides to pull the country out of the institution, she answered “Brazil.”</p> <p>“Brazil is a small contributor. If it decides to leave, only Brazil loses. WHO wins by not having a Brazil that, without technical knowledge, could hinder negotiations that are important for the rest of the world.”</p> <p>Outside of the WHO, Brazil would not be able to discuss the production or distribution of a vaccine at a global level, for instance. The country would not be able to speak about standards for several sectors, such as the pharmaceutical industry, hospitals, and food production. “It is also of economic interest to be there.”

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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