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/)

Joseph Goebbels Resurfaces In Brazilian Politics

Philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote that the aim of totalitarian education is not to instil convictions, but to destroy a population’s capacity to form any. As one of the most prominent intellectuals in Nazi Germany, she had reason to fear its advance. So too, it would appear, do Brazilian creatives, following the announcement of Roberto Alvim, Brazil’s Minister for Culture, on Thursday evening.

“Culture will be national and heroic,” he snarled “or else it will be nothing”.

The announcement was accompanied by the allocation of 20 million reais for cultural projects that emphasise “the motherland, the family, the courage of its people and their profound connection with God.”

It wasn’t long before the Twitter Police began to investigate Alvim’s statement. In announcing the new cultural agenda, Alvim had swapped his usual brand of Old Testament tough talk for the chilling words of Hitler’s Minister of Propoganda, Joseph Goebbels.

An outpouring of public pressure ensued, in which Alvim was removed from his post and government strategists clamoured to distance themselves from the video. 

And yet the notion that this is even slightly off-message for the Bolsonaro government requires stern examination.

The personification of white, male power, Bolsonaro has perfected the art of hiding in plain sight. A ‘political outsider’ despite his 27 years of parliamentary experience, he cannot be seen to be governing. Instead, he relies upon more-qualified minions, the Ricardo Salles’ and Roberto Alvims of the world, to deliver the reforms that will pave the way for his binary vision of Brazil.  

And so it was that just hours before the video’s release, Alvim could be found side by side with the President in his weekly address, receiving compliments and back-slaps for his “bold new vision of national art”.

For older Brazilians, this will all sound eerily familiar. From the critical underfunding of cultural institutions to the slow degradation of artistic subjects in universities, Bolsonaro is following a tried-and-tested agenda to return Brazil to the cultural winter of his 21-year dictatorship.

The slow creep of censorship comes at a the height of interest in Brazilian art, with nominations at this year’s Oscars (Democracia em Vertigem / The Edge of Democracy) and prestigious titles secured at the Cannes Film Festival (Bacarau — Juri Prize).

So unnerved were the Bolsonaro government by the new documentary that a boycott ban was issued via the pro-Bolsonaro Whatsapp groups that proliferate fake news and debate among loyal supporters — an instant form of communication of which Goebbels could only dream.

Like any fascist, Bolsonaro naturally fears arts ability to subvert the status quo, creating futures and ideas that soar above the fickle constraints of politics. And so he’ll continue to use whatever leverage he can to stamp out that which he deems degenerate — the right to imagine new realities, to empathise with others and to ask inconvenient questions.

That Brazilian artists will go on creating goes without saying. Whether they’ll be able to continue to do so without repercussions is another. This month, we invite you to indulge in one of the many Brazilian series on Netflix, from Petra Costa’s Oscar-nominated documentary (Edge of Democracy) to the dystopian world of ‘3%’. In doing so, we save ourselves from a future in which expression is only permissible insofar as it serves the instruments of power.