In north-eastern Brazil, a year has passed without carnival or football games. The ICU occupation rate is now at 85 per cent across the city of Salvador and the state of Bahia. The number of daily deaths has nearly doubled in the two weeks since the governor, Rui Costa, forecasting tragedy, cried on television. The mayor, Bruno Reis, implemented a curfew between 8 p.m. and 5 a.m., and ordered all non-essential businesses to close along with beaches, parks and playgrounds. Those who refuse to wear masks are subject to fines, but compliance is uneven and enforcement nearly non-existent, even as police and soldiers circulate in their vehicles far more than normal. Cases continue to multiply, including cases of apparent reinfection with the Manaus variant of Covid-19. The municipal health secretary predicted collapse on 12 March, and reporters describe wartime conditions in the corridors of the municipal hospital.
The situation in much of the rest of Brazil is considerably worse. In Rio Grande do Sul, on the border with Uruguay, people are dying faster than their deaths can be registered. When I wrote in January, total deaths had just surpassed 208,000; they are now at 277,000. During one recent 24-hour period, Brazil accounted for nearly one in four Covid-related deaths worldwide. The toll of more than two thousand deaths a day is forecast to reach three thousand before the end of the month, well above the previous peak in July 2020, with no end in sight. President Bolsonaro remarked last April that he was ‘no gravedigger’. The Brazilian Association of Funeral Parlour Directors has warned of a nationwide collapse at cemeteries and funeral homes. The organisation's president, Lourival Panhozzi, suggested Bolsonaro try gravedigging for a day in order to grasp the magnitude of catastrophe.
With vaccines scarce to non-existent in many places, Brazil has given 5.8 per cent of the population a first dose and only 2.3 per cent a second. The health minister, General Pazuello, said last October that Brazil would buy 46 million doses of CoronaVac from China, but in his best imitation of Trump, Bolsonaro suspended the purchase the following day. Last August, Pfizer offered to sell the Brazilian government 70 million doses, but never got a reply. Last week, Pazuello said 22 million vaccine doses would be distributed this month, less than half the number he was promising in February. Until recently, he was touting hydroxychloroquine as a cure and devoting government resources to its production. Dogged by charges of mismanagement and corruption, Pazuello’s resignation is imminent. Other military officials at the ministry are likely to remain.
Asked about vaccines directly, Bolsonaro said there were idiots out there saying he should go buy more, and his response was he would ‘buy them at your mother’s house’. The governors of north-eastern states took a different approach: since the Supreme Court has ruled they can bypass the criminally cumbersome federal bureaucracy that approves the use of new drugs, which Bolsonaro has politicised, they have got together to buy nearly 40 million doses of Sputnik V from Russia. Rui Costa signed a deal on 12 March for 10 million doses for Bahia, and an additional nine million doses for the federal government. Bolsonaro’s response has been to attack the governors for their efforts, moving closer to the military, the police and the clientelist Centrão coalition in Congress.
The Centrão’s candidate to replace Pazuello, Dr Ludhmila Hajjar – who favours social distancing, masks and mass vaccination, but not hydroxychloroquine – failed to reach consensus with Bolsonaro and was attacked on social media by bolsonaristas yesterday afternoon. She declined the nomination. If Bolsonaro cannot find a candidate the Centrão supports, he may lose its backing, which is notoriously fickle, and costly.
An epidemiologist in Manaus told Agence France Presse last week that ‘Brazil is a threat to humanity and an open-air laboratory’; the WHO agrees. In Brazil, the spectre of foreign intervention is discussed: many fear it, others welcome it. Bolsonaro’s son Eduardo, who is under investigation for corruption and recently bought a new mansion in Rio, recorded a video (while driving) in which he told viewers they should shove their masks up their asses. The president has made baseless claims that wearing a mask can lead to depression. A delegation led by the foreign minister Ernesto Araújo went to Israel to buy a nasal spray that Bolsonaro has called a ‘miracle cure’. None of them wore a mask until the Israeli authorities forced them.
Last week the Supreme Court cleared Lula of all charges and declared him eligible to run for president in 2022. Yesterday, along with pro-Bolsonaro rallies and caravans of cars protesting against lockdown measures in São Paulo, Rio, Salvador and Rio Grande do Sul, a group gathered in Brasília to set off fireworks in front of the Supreme Court. Congressman Daniel Silveira, an ally of Bolsonaro’s, is in jail after airing a video in which he threatened members of the court with violence.
Lula’s one-time persecutor, the judge and former justice minister Sergio Moro, may soon come under investigation himself. The Court is tied 2-2 on this score, with a final vote still to come in. Justice Gilmar Mendes, who voted to investigate him, treated Brazilians to a magisterial critique of both Moro and the Lava Jato anti-corruption probe. The New York Times, formerly a champion of Moro, has run several op-ed pieces noting that in the name of fighting corruption, he led the Brazilian judiciary into the largest corruption scandal of its chequered history. This was done with the complicity of all major media outlets, domestic and international, as well as the US Treasury and Justice Department. It resulted in the destruction of Brazil’s two leading firms – the state oil company, Petrobras, and the engineering giant Odebrecht – as well as the election of Bolsonaro, which couldn’t have happened without Lula’s imprisonment. Recently leaked voice messages leave little doubt as to prosecutorial and judicial lawbreaking, including the suppression of key evidence.
The latest polls have Lula and Bolsonaro neck and neck in the first round, and predict a second-round victory for Lula. Bolsonaro’s response has been predictably flat-footed and inflexible. He repeats the canard that Lula and the PT are corrupt, yet has taken up parroting Lula’s speeches. The centre-left and centre-right, sensing their electoral chances slipping away, have called for a centrist coalition (which, for any number of reasons, is unlikely to materialise). Lula’s spokesman during his first term, André Singer – one of Brazil’s leading intellectuals and political analysts – thinks Lula has a better a chance against Bolsonaro in 2022 than he had in 2018, when he was leading by more than 12 points before he was forced to pull out of the race. A recent poll in Estado de São Paulo (which is hostile to the PT) had Lula winning by the same margin in 2022.
The question of what sort of country Lula would inherit were he to win, and what he could do to fix it, or at least arrest the velocity of destruction, remains open. But like Brazil – especially north-eastern Brazil, where Lula is from, and where his dominance was never challenged – Lula has been down many times before, and, miraculously, has come back every time. Like the people he hopes to govern again, he is a man of unshakeable faith and optimism. May it prove contagious.