Bolsonaro’s Latest Crisis Threatens Brazil’s Virus Response

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro speaks during a press conference on the resignation of Justice Minister Sergio Moro, at the Planalto Presidential Palace in Brasilia, Brazil, Friday, April 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)

As Brazil careens toward a full-blown public health emergency and economic meltdown, President Jair Bolsonaro has managed to add a third ingredient to the toxic mix: political crisis. Even if it doesn’t speed his downfall, it will render Brazilians more vulnerable to the pandemic.

Bolsonaro’s decision last week to replace the federal police chief — and cross his popular justice minister, Sérgio Moro, who quit and alleged impropriety — has sparked an investigation into the president’s actions that will be conducted by the federal police itself. Already the scandal threatens to supplant coronavirus as the day’s most urgent matter.

“He is dividing the attention of the government and of society, and draining efforts and energy that, in such a grave moment of pandemic, should be exclusively concentrated on efforts to fight COVID-19,” said Paulo Calmon, a professor of political science at the University of Brasilia.

The criminal probe and Moro’s resignation threaten to weaken Bolsonaro’s standing at a time when he already has come under fire for opposition to state efforts to control the rapidly spreading coronavirus. More than 66,000 Brazilians have been infected and at least 4,500 have died — vast under-counts according to experts who point to the country’s widespread lack of testing. Bolsonaro also tossed his popular health minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, who had supported confinement measures put in place by state governors.

Margareth Dalcolmo, a clinical researcher and professor of respiratory medicine at the state-funded Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Rio, said that “ambivalence” and inconsistencies by Bolsonaro’s administration have paved the way for “the biggest humanitarian tragedy we’ve ever seen in Brazil.”

“We are running against time in a chaotic way,” Dalcolomo told an online panel Tuesday sponsored by the Washington-based Wilson Center. “We should have learned more from the countries that preceded us and we didn’t.”

Bolsonaro has called COVID-19 “a little flu” and said sweeping state measures that have closed down all but essential businesses will cause economic damage far worse than allowing the disease to spread while isolating only high-risk Brazilians, such as the elderly and those with health problems. Bolsonaro’s newly named Health Minister Nelson Teich, in his first address to the nation, declared himself “completely aligned” with the president, adding that “health and the economy are complementary.”

The International Monetary Fund this month forecast Brazil’s GDP will plunge 5.3% in 2020. That would be the deepest single-year tumble since at least 1901, when national accounts data from the government’s economics institute began. Brazil contracted 2% in 1918, the year of the Spanish flu pandemic, according to the institute.

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