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Analysis of the COVID-19 Crisis in Brazil

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

In our latest Wikistrat Podcast, Wikistrat's CEO, Oren Kesler interviewed Dr. Fernando Brancoli, an expert on Brazil politics and society to discuss the trifecta of crises in Brazil - health, economic, and political, resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dr. Fernando Brancoli is an Associate Professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and an associate researcher at the Orfalea Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, US.

Full Transcript

Oren Kesler:

Hi everyone, my name is Oren Kesler. I'm Wikistrat’s CEO, and this is another episode of the Wikistrat podcast. Today, I'm very honored to invite to our podcast an expert on Brazil politics and society, Fernando Brancoli. Fernando is a professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, is an expert not only on Brazil's politics but also on its social affairs. We are today going to discuss the situation in Brazil in the light, or I would say in the shadow of the COVID-19 situation. Fernando, thank you so much for joining us. It's a pleasure to have you onboard this podcast.

Fernando Brancoli:

Thank you, Oren, the pleasure is mine.

Oren Kesler:

Fernando, I would like to start with a general question. How would you describe the current situation in Brazil? What do you think are the main roots of the situation that's currently going on in Brazil in terms of the COVID-19 situation?

Fernando Brancoli:

Well, MSF, the humanitarian group, just described the situation here in Brazil last week as a humanitarian crisis. Well, I would say that I agree with this description, and will also say that we have a combination of crises at the end of the day. I mean, this is not only a humanitarian and a sanitary crisis related to the virus but also an economic crisis, combined into a political crisis. So the situation is really, really bad right now.

The scale of deaths is massive. Our health system is beginning to collapse. If you look at the numbers related to the economic side, it's also getting quite bad. All the provisions for the future are also really, really complicated. Politically, the country is being led by Bolsonaro, which I think our listeners probably heard about, and he's not helping at all. He's basically trying to survive right now. So the situation is really bad.

In this sense, we have no central coordination for those three crises: health, economic, and political. The president is fighting with the state governors, that are fighting with the mayors. We don't have coordination also regarding the economic side in the sense that there's a huge discussion since the beginning of the pandemic that the government should be providing some sort of national amount of money for people to stay at home to keep the quarantine, so they don't have to go to the streets, especially the poor people to work.

On the political side, well, this is also combined, of course, to the political side in the sense that a lot of the opposition right now is trying to basically enjoy or use this moment to get Bolsonaro out of power. It's a mess. It's a gigantic crisis. I would say it's the biggest crisis in 100 years, probably in Brazil. Most of my colleagues who are analyzing the country right now, I say would agree with this. Well, things are dire.

Oren Kesler:

Would you say this is... I mean, you mentioned this is the worst crisis Brazil has been going through in the last 100 years. Would you say this is an opening to potential military intervention in Brazil, meaning going back to the days where the military was in charge of Brazilian politics?

Fernando Brancoli:

Well, this is a question I've been trying to answer for the last month in the sense that we do have right now a sort of mixed military government, although I would say part of the sort of democratic system is still being maintained. We have right now more than 6,000 militaries in different government positions from really low-level positions in different ministries, such as economy, foreign affairs, even health, but we also have former military and even active military personnel in ministries. For example, just about last month, we changed our health minister, but it was an active general in the health ministry. We already have a sort of a mixed military government.

I've been teaching the military for the last few years. We had this sort of proximity between academia and the military. They're trying to sound more professional, so they were having courses with us at the university from, I don't know, public management to human rights respect, and stuff like this. Well, for us, it was a bit of a surprise that all this professionalization who are now being used to basically support Bolsonaro.

I don't think we'll have right now, we don't have all the [conditions] to have a military coup, at least not in the same model that we had in the '60s, for example, or what we would traditionally describe as a military coup. But what we could have is this sort of dire and extreme situation that basically what the military would say is that they will have to control parts of the government and stuff like this. They will say it's not a coup, but at the end of the day, this could be described as a lack of democratic change and stuff like this.

I don't know if I'm being clear, but I will not say we'll have a traditional coup in the sense of tanks on the street, the president being jailed and stuff like this, but since the military are already on the government, what we could have is basically the spreading their control of the government in such a high level, that at the end of the day, you basically wake up one day and they are more in charge than ever. At the end of the day, also, what I would like to emphasize is that what we described as Brazilian institutions, like the public officer and the judges and stuff like these, are already sort of reluctant to deal with Bolsonaro in the sense that he have such, or he were able to get such massive support from the military.

Again, I'm more scared of this dubious or ethereal military support than soldiers on the street, tanks, and stuff like this. Maybe one day I will be talking to you again in a couple of months and say, well, we are already living in a dictatorship, but we didn't have the sort of spectacular or traditional military coup. I don't know if I answered you, but that's how I feel this moment right now.

Oren Kesler:

Do you think that when we look at Brazilian politics and the political situation right now, Bolsonaro has any potential rivalries and potential position that is effective and can show competition to him and take over, or do you think that we're likely to see a continuation of Bolsonaro's governance after the Brazil 2022 elections as well, considering the current situation and the failure of the government to deal with it?

Fernando Brancoli:

Well, Oren, if you had asked me the same question about three months ago, I would say, no, Bolsonaro's being on the government without any sort of opposition. The center-left who was trying to create any sort of control about his work was not doing a really good job. But three months ago, the Supreme Court decided that Lula, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the former president is now able again to run for president in 2022. This has been a long discussion, a legal discussion because Lula was put into jail a couple of years ago related to corruption charges. He was more than a year in jail.

Basically what the Supreme Court decided right now is that the whole operation that put Lula into jail, Operation Car Wash, probably our listeners heard about this, this gigantic operation related to corruption, but a lot of politicians into jail. The Supreme Court decided that the Car Wash Operation specifically for Lula was not legal. So Lula is now free again to run for the presidency. Right now there is a huge chance that he will probably get elected in a year. Lula will get elected.

All the polls, I know it's still a bit far, we have a year to the polls, but every single number that we have right now put Lula in the front row, and say that he's going to win Bolsonaro no matter the case. Lula is already sort of running around the country, gathering governors, getting people that are not that happy to Bolsonaro. Probably our listeners and you, Oren, you remember that when Lula was in power, was basically a sort of really good moment for Brazil. I mean, you can remember the cover of The Economist, the magazine, with the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro going up to the skies like a rocket.

Oren Kesler:


Fernando Brancoli:

Well, Lula was quite fortunate also to have a huge boom on the value of commodities during his presidency, so Brazil does have a lot of money and was trying to position himself as a sort of leader in the global south with the bricks, also in Latin America. I mean, inside Brazil, we were getting richer. Brazil basically eradicates hunger. A lot of poverty was also being reduced. We can also discuss in another moment all the complications regarding the Lula government, regarding corruption and stuff like this, but there is a huge perception in a larger part of the population that this was the last time that Brazil was functioning, that Brazil was quite well. So all these memories now coming back, Lula is playing his game again, saying, "You remember when I was president how things were, and how everything is happening right now." For example, he got vaccinated on live television. Bolsonaro has been fighting vaccines for quite some time.

Just after Lula got vaccinated on live TV, Bolsonaro changed his behavior related to the pandemic quite well. He sacked his health ministry, the general I was speaking about, Pazuello. He put a civilian in charge, a doctor, and he said that he's going to buy a lot of vaccines, that he's basically going to behave like, I don't know, a normal president. For me, it has been quite interesting to talk to congressmen the last few weeks, to even governors, from Rio de Janeiro, the mayor, basically to understand how they perceive the situation, and everybody's saying that things are changing. If the numbers, they are maintaining the last month. I mean, all the polls saying that Lula is probably going to win. People see he's getting motion. He'll probably get a lot of support from other political leaders, and well, Bolsonaro maybe will lose in a year. I mean, everything is quite open, but now for the very first time, we have this opportunity. So things are going to change quite fast.

I would say to people who are trying to understand Brazil right now, one of the key points is how Lula's candidacy to the president will behave, how much support he will get from all the politicals, and also how the economic leaderships, I mean, how the great industrials and people with money at the end of the day, who they will support because they are also getting quite mad with Bolsonaro. I mean, the huge organizations related to industry and to commerce and stuff like this in Brazil have been doing some public statements. Again, Bolsonaro says that the way he basically organized didn't organize. At the end of the day, the pandemic created a lot of trouble for Brazil. Maybe if they start to make statements also supporting Lula, they will have a big shift regarding this.

Well, just to keep talking and maybe have another question, we just had in Brazil a public investigation opened by the congressmen, by senators, to try to investigate how Bolsonaro dealt with the pandemic. This is happening right now. This is just being open. We call this [foreign language] in Portuguese, it's a commission opened by congressmen trying to investigate the pandemic, or how the government behaves related to the pandemic. The congressmen have a lot of power in the sort of committee. They can, for example, summon the president to inquiry. They can summon ministries. They can ask for bank statements. They can open public records, telephone records, for example. So things are going to change really, really fast in the next few weeks, I would say, I mean, from Bolsonaro getting out of power to Bolsonaro strengthening his power, everything's possible right now. But what we do know is that this sort of morosity, this opposition without any sort of real power against Bolsonaro, that's what we perceive in the last month, this is completely changed right now, and things will be really, really different in the next months.

Oren Kesler:

Fascinated to see how somewhat Bolsonaro has... I mean, objectively, I think it will be fair to say that he hasn't succeeded in dealing with the dynamic without even saying that he failed to deal with the pandemic, still has a large basis of support and a very strong basis of support. Can you give us some analysis on who supports him and what are those pillars of support that basically keeps him in power and keeps him so popular among the Brazilian public?

Fernando Brancoli:

Well, we have this complicated discussion regarding support, because for example, the last president just before Bolsonaro, Michel Temer, ended his government with 7% of support, only 7% of Brazilians say that they support the government, and he was still in power because he still got a lot of support from the economic elite and from congressmen. At the end of the day, if you get the right support, you could still be in power. But related to Bolsonaro, right now, all the numbers are saying that he's still maintaining support around 20 to 25 percent of the population.

People who are supporting Bolsonaro right now according to all the statistics are basically 20% of the population, and it's a combination of religious people, especially evangelicals, we have part of the economic elite in Brazil, they still support him. At the end of the day, he's also being quite supported by congressmen, especially the lower chamber, basically because he opened his government creating these sorts of political bribes to the congressmen. I mean, every single position right now in ministries, in the executive or even the ministry itself is being chosen by those congressmen, by people that are being indicated by those congressmen, so the government right now is being run also by them.

Right now he's still got some large support, I would say, especially if you think about how Brazil is dealing with the pandemic, we are now the center of the pandemic. We have the largest numbers in the world. Our economy is being scrambled. Brazil's currency has lost a lot of its power. I think it's the weakest currency in the world if you compare it since the beginning of the pandemic. He still maintains quite some power, I mean, 20%, and there is no sign that he will, I mean, get out of power through the popular commotion, especially because, well, since we are in the middle of the pandemic, we don't have right now people on the streets protesting, we don't have a lot of commotion on the street.

But well, at the end of the day, his strategy regarding the pandemic, although it was destructive, it was, I would say, some people are describing it as a crime, as a genocide, there's a workout. I mean, we have these incredible bad numbers regarding the sanitary crisis, but he's still being supported by a fifth of the population and by congressmen. Although he's having some trouble, at the end of the day, I would say it did maintain, it did payout.

Oren Kesler:

I think in the context of the pandemics, it's more about getting kind of herd immunity in a way without actively taking measures such as quarantine and social distancing and enforcing other active measures that were taken by others in order to prevent the spread of the disease, and that was basically the strategy that the government of Brazil has chosen to take, which is a strategy of, I would say, lack of any action to counter the pandemic in order not to also have any economic restrictions and access and movement restrictions in a way. Would that be correct, kind of a way to describe this?

Fernando Brancoli:

Yes. Completely correct. Since the very beginning, Bolsonaro has been quite vocal saying that this was just a normal flu, that nobody should panic. And then after the number of deaths started to grow, he said that he had this sort of magical drug to deal with the pandemic, Chloroquine, which was the very same drug that Trump was offering to the US, but then he gave up, but we maintain this. He even asked the army to start to produce this drug, Hydroxychloroquine, although there is no scientific support regardless. He was basically crowding with people all the time, not using a mask. But I would say that at the end of the day it was really catastrophic for Brazil that different from other places or other countries. Even here in Latin America, there was really little support for people to stay at home.

We have this saying right now in Brazil that people had to choose between bread or the virus, where poor people basically had to decide if they stay at home like the doctors were saying on TV to avoid large crowds, to avoid the spread of the virus, or if they should go home to get something to eat. I mean, the number of poor people in Brazil has been rising really, really fast. Since the federal government had the power to create a sort of financial help to help people, it was really slow regarding those issues. People were back in the street saying, "Well, I cannot stay at home. I have to do something. I have to work or do something to get a job or to eat." At the very same time, even economically, who owns, I don't know, large stores and stuff, they say, "Well, yeah, people should be in the street. We have herd immunity." We have all this discussion that this is a really... I mean, it's not such a big deal. It's just the flu.

The president said that since he was an athlete, even if he got the virus, he will not feel about this. So there's a lot of people saying, "Well, this is not a big deal." And then at the end of the day, you also had all these conspiracy theories when the numbers started to grow: that the virus was a sort of Chinese conspiracy, the vaccines, they were inoculating other viruses in people. I know this can sound a bit crazy to our listeners, but in Brazil, those conspiracy theories were strong. People were using them or spreading them through WhatsApp. For example, I live in a sort of residential area here in Rio de Janeiro. People that live around me are basically also university professors, doctors, lawyers. So people who went to universities, and a lot of my neighbors, do believe in this kind of thing that using masks is a communist plot, or that the vaccines, they possess a chip, that the Chinese will try to track you down. Those had a lot of power to keep people in the street.

At the end of the day, Brazil never maintained any sort of social distance, if you look at the numbers. Well, you can imagine being supported by the president every single day on TV saying, "Go out. Go to work. This is normal flu. The vaccine doesn't work. We are not buying the vaccine. Or even if you forget the virus, you can use this miraculous drug, Chloroquine." Well, that's it. We didn't have any empty streets in Brazil as you saw in other places, like a complete lockdown, and the numbers just keep rising.

The problem right now is that Brazil is also creating variations of the virus. You probably heard about this already, and I think probably our listeners also heard about this, that the type of COVID we have in Brazil now is way more powerful than the very first type, so the vaccines are not working that well anymore. The numbers are also rising. Well, it is quite catastrophic. It's a mix of conspiracy theory and economic decisions and the sort of extreme-right president that decided that just a lockdown will be a really, really political terrible idea. It was just better to keep people walking around.

Oren Kesler:

What do you think Brazil and the Brazilian government should do in order to navigate themselves out of this crisis, to position themself in a course of action, which is actually one in which the situation will improve over time in contrast to the situation correctly?

Fernando Brancoli:

Well, Oren, besides the, I think traditional measures that everybody else in the world has been doing, like a lockdown, buying of vaccines and stuff like this, one point that we'd like to emphasize to our listeners, which is something I've been involved with in the last weeks, this is quite new in Brazil, and I think it's going to also change the way the country behave internationally is that for the very first time, state governors are bypassing the executive government and try to deal directly with international access, with other governments, with other institutions like the UN and even other companies. So for the very first time, the Brazilian ministry of foreign affairs, we call it [Portugese], which was this all-powerful entity for foreign affairs in Brazil for basically the entire Brazilian history, if you want to deal with Brazil internationally through our international actor, if you're a company, if you are an international institution, you always deal with the federal government and the minister of foreign affairs.

But since Bolsonaro has been so non-propositive regarding the virus and the pandemic, what we are witnessing in the last year, I would say, is state governors, like São Paolo, Rio de Janeiro, and the Northeast, they are for the very first time contacting directly other places, other countries to deal with the pandemic. I think this is going to change the political landscape in Brazil regarding how we do foreign affairs.

I think this could be quite interesting for our listeners in the sense that, for example, the states of the Northeast of Brazil, basically create a collective and they are negotiating directly with China. Bolsonaro has been quite a critic regarding China saying that they are communist, that they want to buy Brazil and all this kind of nonsense, and at the very same time, those Northeast governors, they basically created the Northeast group, you would say, they are dealing with China regarding trying to buy vaccines, but also trying to buy respirators for people, or on the other spaces, those hospitals, drugs regarding lung drugs and stuff like this.

For example, the Chinese ambassador in Brazil has been quite vocal saying, "Yes, we do have a great connection with those governors. We want to help," and stuff like this. At the very same time, Sao Paulo, the richest state in Brazil also created this sort of open line with China. For example, the vaccine we are using in Brazil right now, CoronaVac, which is a Chinese vaccine, was created through this sort of parallel channel between state governors and China. Right now in Rio de Janeiro, the state from where I'm speaking, they are also dealing with Russia right now regarding buying vaccines and stuff like this.

This can sound maybe to some of our listeners who may be in the US quite natural, since the state governors in the US, for example, have a lot of power, but I must emphasize this is brand new in Brazil politics. We didn't have this in our history, and this is changing really, really fast also in other topics. For example, we will have discussions regarding the environment in the next weeks in Brazil, and for the very first time, the governors from the Amazon states where they're saying, well, UN, United States, Europe, you don't have to deal with Bolsonaro. Deal directly with me. We can have a formal, direct conversation. Again, this is brand new. All the theoretical tools we use in Brazil to understand foreign policy, didn't include those new actors.

So I would say for people trying to understand what's happening in Brazil right now, or people maybe trying to make money with Brazil, or try to invest in Brazil, a really interesting point will be how to deal with those local actors, mayors, and state governors, and try at the end of the day to bypass the president. This is happening. Germany is doing this right now. Some companies are doing this right now. The UN is doing this right now. Maybe we'll talk again in a couple of years or months, and I would say, "Well, right now we have two diplomacies in Brazil, a sort of executive diplomacy through the traditional channels, the minister of foreign affairs, but at the same time, we have small diplomats or sorts of small ministries dealing directly with other countries and stuff like this."

I made this gigantic regression just to say that right now a lot of my hopes regarding the state governors and mayors who are basically bypassing Bolsonaro and try to get international support to fight the coronavirus, because, at the end of the day, Bolsonaro already put all his coins and all his arguments in how to deal with this, no lockdown, no vaccine. So it will be quite strange for him to make a complete turn regarding this. Well, all my hopes are with the mayors and the state governors right now, I would say.

Oren Kesler:

This is a very interesting point because this regards the potential implications of this crisis on the future of the Brazilian political system moving from a centralized federal one into one in which the states via the governors and the heads of the municipalities, primarily in the big cities, such as Rio and Sao Paulo, in Curitiba, for example, but yeah, in the north, this means that for them, they will show and exhibit more initiative, they will have more political power. This means that we're going to see one of the implications of the COVID-19 on the Brazilian political system is an impact of decentralization of the political system. Is that correct? Is that a correct assessment?

Fernando Brancoli:

Absolutely yes. Absolutely, I think we will have a completely different Brazil speaking politically at the end of the pandemic. I mean the governors, those head of municipalities, they are all saying that they want more power, that they want to deal with international affairs, for example, in a more assertive way. A point or an issue I would like to discuss is that although they can have this sort of political initiative, the way the economic side behaves in Brazil, it's also quite centralized. The federal government controls most of the budget at the end of the day. It's not like the US, for example. So although those governors can have the will to do something, there are still a lot of economic constraints. We're also having now following up with some congressmen trying to change the law on Congress or trying to use the pandemic as a sort of trampoline to also change how the budget is being distributed in Brazil.

I would say we can have at the end of the pandemic a more decentralized Brazil also on the budget side and stuff like this. It's going to be a new Brazil. Definitely. It's going to be quite new on how you make money in Brazil, how you invest in Brazil, how you deal with Brazil. A number of officials, for example, in environment investments, oil and gas, will change because mayors will be more assertive and state governors will be more assertive. But of course, as you mentioned, Oren, we are speaking about the more rich and more politically important states, like São Paulo, like Curichiba, like Rio de Janeiro. We still have some places in Brazil that are quite poor that are not that developed, and they are still really, really in need of financial help from the federal government. For example, I don't think those will have a lot of capacity to do something, but some of them will.

I will suggest for everybody listening to us right now thinking or planning to invest or to understand Brazil in the future, you will have to take into account that it's a more fragmented political system, and well, some of those places will have their own ministry of foreign affairs and stuff like these, or secretaries of foreign affairs. Maybe will be an option to navigate through all this bureaucracy regarding Brazil and all this sort of political noise from the federal government, would be easier, for example, to make some investments or some talks from these mayors, I would say, for example, in São Paulo, with Doria, the governor, João Doria in São Paulo. He's creating, for example, secretaries, or is more investment placed around the world in China, in the US in Europe. But basically what he's saying is, "Well, I have my own diplomats. I have my own representatives. Don't go to the federal government. Talk directly to those guys from the state of Sao Paulo representatives in China.

This is really, really interesting. I mean, São Paulo is right now Brazil's powerhouse. Basically, most of our GDP is from São Paulo, so it will be sort of rational for someone trying to understand Brazil, to invest in Brazil, to go directly to those places. So yes, it's interesting. From the academic side, I would say we are now running to create all these theoretical discussions to try to understand this, but at the same time, it's been really, really interesting because for example, here in Rio de Janeiro, the governor and the mayor of the city of Rio de Janeiro has been looking to, for example, my university, to help to create those secretaries around the world. I think it will be quite exciting to check how those things will operate in some months or in a year, of course, especially because, well, by now, everything is more or less stopped or not working because we're in the middle of the pandemic.

Oren Kesler:

I think that's a good point to conclude with, because it's the light at the end of the tunnel, so to speak. The good that can come out of this, which is a system, being a political or governance system in which individual, I won't say individual, but those kinds of islands, those municipal and state islands will be able to initiate economic, environmental, etc., social policies more freely and also take the initiative on them, and that will be something very positive for Brazil, as you just mentioned. I think that's a nice kind of a conclusion to our discussion right now.

Fernando Brancoli:

I think the country is changing. It's a pity that this is happening because of this gigantic crisis regarding the coronavirus, but economically and politically we will have a different Brazil, and I think it will be easier to deal with a lot of our issues and also to recover our hopes. So if you think about environmental questions, economic questions, everything will be different to deal with Brazil in the future. So hopefully next time we talk, we'll be in a more, I don't know, hopefully, a better way, a better moment, but it's changing, it's changing quite fast, and I think to everybody trying to understand what's happening right now will have to take into account this new political actor entering the scene.

Oren Kesler:

Fernando, thank you so much for joining us on this podcast. This has been very insightful also on the current situation in Brazil. We hope for the best. Obviously, we wish that everybody will stay safe and healthy, and thank you so much for joining us, Fernando. Much appreciated.

Fernando Brancoli:

Yeah. It was my pleasure, Oren. Thank you for listening. Hopefully, everybody also keeps safe, and well, things will get better, hopefully too.

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