Were it not for the semi-consistent use of masks in the street, and the closing of the beaches on Sundays and Mondays, you could be forgiven for thinking the pandemic hadn’t reached Salvador da Bahia, the capital of the state with the second-lowest Covid-19 death rate in Brazil. The official number of deaths for the whole country surpassed 200,000 on 8 January. Locals and visitors (mainly from elsewhere in Brazil) congregate in groups at outdoor tables without masks, and people walk – some masked, others not – along the oceanfront. A festa continua, mas não.
The region’s economy is seasonal. Tourism at Christmas and New Year, the festival of São João in June and, above all, carnival in February, is crucial to production, consumption and distribution of such goods as ice, beer, water, food and costumes, not to mention the property rental market. Without carnival (estimated loss: one billion reais), or the festival of São João, most people in Salvador are taking a serious economic hit. In Brazil’s federal system, a lot of local policy has been decided by the former mayor A.C.M. Neto (of the centre-right Democratas) and the current governor, Rui Costa (PT). They are widely credited with a competent performance in the face of Brasilia’s intransigence, obstruction and denial, not only in relation to Covid-19 but to the economy as well. The economic devastation wrought by the Bolsonaro government’s incompetence and mismanagement, compared to how things were as recently as 2018, is difficult to grasp.
When asked about the impending end of government stimulus payments last week, Bolsonaro told the press that Brazil was bankrupt, and he could therefore do nothing. This was not music to the ears of either Brazilian or foreign investors. The following day Bolsonaro met with Paulo Guedes, his economy minister, and reversed course – the economy was marvellous, he said. The reason for the high unemployment rate, the worst it’s been for decades, was the Brazilian people, Bolsonaro said: they simply weren’t fit to be hired.
When a survey found that 70 per cent of Brazilians planned to get vaccinated against Sars-Cov-2 (which vaccine will depend on the deals state governors cut with the pharmaceutical companies), Bolsonaro told the press he had done his own survey, and concluded that fewer than half of Brazilians would get the jabs. One of those who will is the vice-president, General Hamilton Mourão, who has said that vaccination is a collective rather than individual responsibility. One of the negationist doctors who was pushing hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure died from Covid-19 late last year.
Brasilia remains loyal to Trump. The foreign minister, Ernesto Araujo, recently intimated that it would not be prudent to recognise Biden’s victory until he could be sure that no electoral fraud was committed. After the invasion of the US Capitol building on 6 January, Bolsonaro warned that ‘something worse’ might happen in Brazil in 2022. Araujo and Bolsonaro are what Donald Rumsfeld once labelled, in a different context, dead-enders of the old regime. Unlike Trump, Bolsonaro has never had rock-ribbed backing from more than 33 per cent of the population. But Brazilian voters, like their counterparts elsewhere, don’t make foreign policy or influence it; most are focused on local and domestic concerns: when vaccination programmes will begin, for example. They are now set for 20 January.
The Butantan Institute in São Paulo is lined up to manufacture Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac, and the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz in Rio has made a deal with AstraZeneca. Once the federal regulatory agency, Avisa, gives its approval – according to the health minister, General Eduardo Pazuello – vaccines will reach all governors and mayors within three to four days.
This seems unlikely, since the government has been able to buy only eight million of the 331 million syringes it needs, and has only 60 million stockpiled. It also seems unwise, since the need for vaccines is more urgent in some states than others. Roraima and Maranhão have declining rates of infection; in fourteen states it’s stable (Amapá, Acre, Pará, Tocantins, Goiás, Bahia, Espírito Santo, Piauí, Ceará, Pernambuco, Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte, Rio Grande do Sol, Santa Catarina, Paraná); and in nine states it’s accelerating, including the most economically, politically and demographically significant: São Paulo, Rio, Minas Gerais, Matto Grosso, Matto Grosso do Sul, Amazonas, Rondônia, Sergipe and Alagoas.
Cases and deaths have spiked most dramatically in Manaus, Amazonas, with 90 per cent of ICU beds occupied and hospitalisation rates up 72 per cent in two weeks. The newly elected mayor, David Almeida, declared the health system in collapse (for the second time in less than a year), and warned that the city could run out of graves in the next few months unless deaths taper off.
Arguing that no state should have special privileges, and that all governors need to follow its National Vaccination Plan, the Health Ministry in Brasilia has tried to block São Paulo’s governor, João Doria, from raising funds to buy vaccine doses on his own. Doria fired back that if Anvisa approves CoronaVac, São Paulo – where nearly one in four of Brazil’s Covid deaths have occurred, and where both labs that will produce vaccines are located – could begin before 25 January. Fortunately for Paulistas (and their family members scattered throughout Brazil and the rest of the world), Bolsonaro’s efforts to requisition the vaccines that Doria had ordered were struck down by the Supreme Court.
It remains to be seen how effective the national vaccination campaign will be. Some successes may be scored at the state and local levels, but as in the US, determined sabotage by the federal government limits what can be done to mitigate against, much less prevent Covid-19. The Banco do Brasil has just announced five thousand layoffs, which reinforces the sense that economic hardship and social despair are likely to continue to rise along with the pandemic.