We’re getting used to world leaders making decisions that appear Quixotic, even a bit insane. In the face of a world that’s shutting down due to a virus, North Korea is running missile tests every couple of days, rogue Iraqi militias keep firing missiles at American bases, Russia’s doing a curious diplomatic maneuver with Venezuela… and Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has decided that his countrymen are tough enough to survive COVID-19 without any protection.
Over the past few weeks, Bolsonaro has downplayed fears of a global pandemic, which he termed a “fantasy”. He’s been touting the country’s tropical climate as a safety factor and playing on their tradition of facing disease and hardship without wavering. During a national address on Tuesday, he expressed his hope that the new virus had already passed through, and that the population would be largely immune already. He followed that by calling the harsh restrictions levied by regional governors as criminal; on Thursday he explained to reporters that Brazilians are tough and resilient enough to survive.
The new national policy, as he explained it, is for only the most vulnerable to remain in quarantine while the virus runs its course, and for everyone else to carry on with their lives.
It’s a bold move politically, since he’ll be facing re-election in 2022 and a parade of corpses won’t help his chances. Economically speaking, one can see his argument that it’s necessary; Brazil had a slowdown in 2015-6 that it still hasn’t fully recovered from, and the country doesn’t have the resources to keep everyone fed during a full lockdown. In the past, food riots have resulted from even mild measures; it’s easy to predict their return here — and that acknowledging this from the beginning, and that pervasive contagion is inevitable in an unruly populace, might just be the proper course.
From a suitably Malthusian perspective, that is.
His population doesn’t entirely agree. Polls from early March supported strict isolation, and the regional governors received approval ratings averaging over 50%; by comparison, Bolsonaro was well under 40%. However, in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, residents are protesting by banging pots out their windows. That’s an unpleasant sign, but at least they’re not on the streets.
One major difficulty is that, while Brazil does have semi-universal health care, there’s beds available for about 0.2% of the population — about average in the industrialized world, but far too few for even cursory service during a pandemic. In that event, it’s estimated that twenty to thirty times that number would be required. As a result, Brazil would be in for a couple of extremely bad weeks.
On the other hand, thanks to the restrictions on news coming out of China, we’re still not aware of how large-scale immunity would work in the general population. Recent studies in Iceland show that half of all carriers are asymptomatic, yet many can still pass on the virus regardless. Germany is beginning a large-scale study, but it’s unlikely to provide even reasonably reliable data during the next few weeks. So we really don’t know; Bolsonaro might actually be factually correct, unlikely though it seems.
The only thing we know for sure is, if Brazil acts as he suggests, we’re going to find out pretty soon — on a population of over 200 million people. Quite the test group.
Editor’s Note — There’s a second country doing much the same: Sweden. Their rate of infection is rising rapidly, but their government (and many of their citizens) insist that access to the outdoors is essential for good health. They’re not issuing strict guidelines; adults should be treated as adults, they say.
At the other end of the spectrum we have Belarus, which has fewer than 100 diagnosed cases. They’ve continued with football (soccer) tournaments, the bars are all open, and it’s planting season. “The tractor will heal everyone. The fields heal everyone,” says President Lukashenko.
I guess we’ll have to wait and see.