TEARS OF A CLOWN: BOLSONARO & COVID-19

Brazil has a history of electing clowns. In 2010, Francisco Oliveira Silva, a television comedian and children’s entertainer, was elected as one of the federal deputies for Sao Paulo, garnering more than 1.3 million votes. His slogan? It can’t get any worse than it already is. Seven years later, Jair Bolsonaro crash-landed onto the political centre-stage — a reminder, if ever there was one, not to tempt fate.

Since then, Bolsonaro has gone above and beyond the role of jester, eroding away any respectability of office with his lewd jokes and unabashed racism. An increasingly erratic presence, his attempts at governance have provoked laughs from across the political spectrum. And while we are all entitled to a sense of humour, what happens when the punchline is democracy itself? 

His supporters would have you believe it sensationalism. To them, he is like a drunk uncle at a family barbecue — bumbling but harmless. For the rest of the population, he is a dictator-in-waiting, flanked by generals who have grown tired of chomping at the democratic bit.

Indeed, Bolsonaro’s frustration with his own government and the democratic process has become particularly pronounced over the last month. On the 15th March, he could be found greeting throngs of supporters, following a call-to-arms to “defend the President” against the scrutiny of Congress.

That swathes of people turned out despite strict warnings from the Ministry of Health about the risk of COVID-19 contagion is testament to the fervor he inspires amongst his base. 

Image captured by Roberto Sungi for Futura Press of the pro-President protests on 15/03/20 — engineered in part by former General Augusto Heleno.

Things reached a crescendo last Tuesday during an address to the nation in which Bolsonaro abandoned the government line on how best to mitigate the outbreak of coronavirus. 

Bolsonaro’s polemic address to the nation on 24/03/20

Over the course of five minutes, he skidded from one scapegoat to the next, attacking everyone from state governors to the media at large for instilling a climate of “hysteria” over COVID-19. The virus, he touts, is nothing more than a light flu, which would have no impact on a “former athlete” such as himself (such a claim is false on both counts). He concluded by urging Brazilians to return to schools and work, in effect sabotaging the nation-wide attempt at social distancing. 

This weekend, speakers could be heard blaring out in the capital of Minas Gerais encouraging residents to leave their homes for a pro-President parade in the park. 

In a rare act of unity, 26 of Brazil’s 27 state governors met to move against him, advocating the need for continued social distancing within their respective regions. Former allies such as Ronaldo Caiado (state governor of Goias) severed ties with the President all together, describing his behaviour as “appalling”.

A tearful Bolsonaro has since responded by looking to his military cronies for backing — among them General Walter Braga Neto, newly appointed Chief of Staff. In a truly ingratiating move, Neto took it upon himself yesterday to undermine the Minister of Health, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, mid-press conference, while dropping veiled hints of his potential dismissal.

Such fraying relations between a Head of State and congress are not uncommon in the Trumpian era. However, they do have sobering overtones in a nation whose last military dictatorship is within living memory. 

It’s a legacy that’s already been aggressively revised under the current President. This time last year, Bolsonaro sent a letter to the UN denying that a coup d’etat ever took place on the 31st March 1964. Instead, he claimed, the military takeover was a “necessary move to fight the growing threat of communism in Brazil”. 

Compare this unnecessary action in 2019 with the lack of action in 2020, and we have an insight into the hollowness of his far-right ideology. Like his ally in the White House, it’s clear that Jair Bolsonaro is only good at responding to imagined threats, rather than real, impending ones.

Climate change, pandemics, and rising global debt cannot be reduced to moral crusades and as such tend to infuriate men like Bolsonaro. In response, he lights all the political bonfires possible to avoid having to deal with them. 

However, with the economy sputtering and unemployment on the rise, this particular bonfire has the potential to blaze even larger than the Amazonian fires that engulfed much of north-west Brazil last August.

In positioning himself against the national quarantine, Bolsonaro flinches away from assuming any responsibility, preparing for a possible “I told you so moment” when the inevitable post-corona recession hits. 

At such a time, he will no doubt point to the governors and institutions of state who, in acting to save lives, allowed the economy to stumble.

How the wider population will view this is the great unknown. Jair Bolsonaro might be politically illiterate, but he has proven himself perfectly adept at inciting extreme emotions in the electorate. With the backing of his uniformed pals guaranteed, could Jair have the last laugh when it comes to Brazilian democracy? That remains to be seen.

WHY MYOPIA IS DEADLIER THAN COVID-19

Infectious diseases are the only types of illnesses that affect us collectively. As such they tend to bring into focus the fragility of the resources we share. This particular outbreak has reminded developed countries that safe air and stable food supplies are privileges, not guarantees. It’s also underscored that we are more interdependent and connected than contemporary politics would have us believe. So while it’s easy to get lost in the panic, it’s perhaps worth reflecting that the most virulent sickness plaguing mankind is not COVID-19, but the myopic way in which we respond to such events.

Coronavirus doesn’t exist in isolation. Instead, it is the result of several problematic practices, for which we have all received ample warning. Whether it’s the wet-markets in China or the 5,000,000,000,000 animals being reared in close confinement, our current agricultural system is creating billions of hosts for dangerous pathogens. 

Couple this with the fact that Big Pharma hasn’t produced a new antibiotic in the last 35 years (apparently, it’s just not that financially interesting) and we are fabricating the conditions for our own demise. 

But just as stress creates the conditions for evolution in the microbial world, so it can in our societies. 

If we are brave enough, governments will use this calamity as an opportunity to reframe public health infrastructure across the modern world.

Needless to say, it will require a lot more creativity than billions of pounds worth of low-interest business loans, as announced by the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer this week. 

But just as stress creates the conditions for evolution in the microbial world, so it can in our societies.” 

The first step in such a microbial war would be an ambitious vaccination programme that seeks to treat the HA stem of all influenza viruses. Just as we invested $23 billion dollars into the Manhattan Project, we would need to invest $7 billion1 to fund such a scheme, the results of which could save rather than kill more lives than ever believed possible.

As the AIDS vaccination programme has revealed, we are more powerful when we pool our resources — be those intelligence, money or time. Open source technology could play a key role in opening up such an investigation to scientists across the globe. 

The second might be more challenging. We will need to be rigorous in our opposition to all practices which exacerbate our contact with harmful pathogens. This includes factory-farming and deforestation (the latter of which provoked the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa). 

This will require loosening the chokehold that agricultural lobbyists hold over elected officials. Alternatively, it will require consumers to vote with their forks, opting for ethically sourced animal products as opposed to mass-produced ones. 

Organic food sales (while the fast-growing sector of the UK food-market) only account for 1.3% of total market share.”

Soil Association, Organic Market Report 2020

The third is to realise that such audacious action is possible. After all, we’ve done it before. Individual welfare states and the World Health Organization were all created in the post-War period, the vestiges of which are the only institutions offering any protection against the current Coronavirus. 

Our world is capable of healing, and fast. We’ve seen it in the clearing of Venice’s canal water and the improvement in air pollution across China in recent months. But is our politics? 

If we go back to business as usual, the 2020s will be the decade of collective crises. From climate change to mass immigration to antibiotic resistance, our current model is short-changing the human race. And piecemeal policies will no longer be able to save us. 

1 Estimated figure provided by Michael Osterholm, American public-health scientist and biosecurity and infectious-disease expert, in his book Deadliest Enemy: The War Against Germs billion1

Header Image illustration by the incredibly talented Aykut Aydoğdu (https://www.aykworks.com/)

5 CHANGE-MAKERS TO TAKE NOTE OF THIS INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY

Where do we go looking for the women that society erased? The 16th century poets or contemporary Middle Eastern composers who leave this world with their music still imprisoned inside them? In Alice Walker’s moving essay, In Search Of Our Mothers Gardens, she suggests that we must look to the female leaders of today, each of whom are the fruits of their ancestors’ stifled creativity. 

And so this International Women’s Day, we’d like to draw attention to 5 international change-makers. A mix of creatives, founders and activists, they are the women our grandmothers always dreamed of becoming. And while many hail from different countries, they are all united in finding ways to reshape the world so it can be examined anew in the brilliant light of the female perspective.

ALICE CARVALHO

Photo via @carvalhoalice

Who is she? A Brazilian actress, screenwriter and all-round word wizard, Carvalho has transformed the editorial landscape with her fearless poetry that demands equality as the only truth worth having.

Currently working on… Series two of her award-winning web series “Septo” that reclaims lesbian stories from the over-sexualised male gaze.

Where can I find her? On Instagram at @carvalhoalice.

check warner

Who is she? One of the co-founders of ADA Ventures, a venture capital company that seeks to invest in minority founders and markets.

Currently working on… supporting a variety of up-and-coming FemTech’s, one of which hopes to increase fertility prospects through study of the vaginal microbiome.

Where can I find her? On Medium at @checkwarner where she breaks down the esoteric world of investment-raising into easy-to-read blogs.

Tarana burke

Who is she? The original founder of the #MeToo movement and founder of the Just Be Inc, a non-profit organisation that seeks to provide support for victims of sexual assault.

Currently working on… a memoir that should be available by the end of 2020.

Where can I find her? On Twitter and Instagram at @TaranaBurke and @TaranaJaneen respectively.

PETRA COSTA

Via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Who is she? An Oscar-nominated Brazilian filmmaker who’s riveting documentary Edge of Democracy tracks the corruptions and contradictions of politics in the world’s fifth-largest democracy.

Currently working on… reconnecting with the nuance of the written word while touring the US to discuss the ongoing impact of her latest documentary.

Where can you find her? Costa is most active on Twitter, where she goes by the handle @petracostal.

THE SLUMFLOWER AKA CHIDERA EGGERUE

Who is she? An author and influencer whose work on self-love and dating represents an exciting new wave of contemporary feminism.

Currently working on… promoting her latest book “How To Get Over A Boy”.

Where can I find her? On Instagram at @theslumflower where she regularly hosts Instagram lives.