The old saying goes that if you put a frog in hot water, it will jump out; but if placed in the lukewarm water, heated over some time, it will slowly accept its fate and die.
It’s not true, of course; frogs are much smarter than people when it comes to existential resignation. But it does provide an interesting thought experiment: if that were the case, then surely, there would be one moment where the frog, like all living things, would realize that it was already too late, its skin cracking and peeling, the unbearable heat of the boiling water, fumes that smell like its own flesh being cooked. It would be painful and it would be slow and it would be, above all, unavoidable.
When one thinks of Brazil, that is the prevailing image: the frog, soaked in boiling water, aware that its death will come, but unable to do anything about it.
_________________________ // __________________________________
Jair Bolsonaro, age 65, is a man who defies metaphor. Every attempt to compare him to something else is either not blunt enough or too grounded in reality. Propelled to the national stage for praising Dilma Rousseff’s torturer to her face during her Congress impeachment, Bolsonaro became president in 2018, beating the Workers’ Party candidate in the runoff. “Brazil is now an axis of sadism, spreading sadism through the whole continent”, said sociologist Celso Rocha de Barros upon the occasion of the now-President’s election.
Bolsonaro, an outspoken admirer of Donald Trump and other right wing populists, quickly went from a curious Brazilian thug to an active inspiration both in manners and method. Smelling blood in the water, many other Latin American politicians mentioned him as an inspiration in their ways.
There were never any euphemisms for Bolsonaro’s beliefs. Though some tried to use the “take him serious, not literally” approach, it fell flat. Bolsonaro advocates murder and destruction. This is no hyperbole; he is proud of such views. He wishes to “destroy the left” – a category broad enough to fit any enemy, real or imagined, socialist, liberal or right wing. He wishes to massacre outlaws – a category that includes human rights activists and political rivals, but not the militias formed by former or active policemen, most of whom are his supporters. And he has, at every turn, shown a furious need not only to desecrate the customary rules of civility, but also to attack the very foundations of knowledge and science.
Even allowing for these facts, Bolsonaro’s reaction to the Coronavirus epidemic has been increasingly unbelievable and terrifying. While governments around the world have been judged on speed of response, the Brazilian president has outright denied and derided the seriousness of the situation, calling it “merely a flu” and stating that quarantine measures enforced by state governors were exaggerated or electoral ploys to damage the economy. “Some people will die, that’s a shame. We don’t close car factories because there are accidents.” The president said, explaining why he wanted shops and services to return to normalcy.
These might seem similar to the approach of Donald Trump, but there is a cruel kicker: Bolsonaro himself is suspected of having tested positive for Coronavirus, a status he keeps secret after confirming it and walking back afterwards. In a calculated move to spite his Health Minister, who had been following WHO’s advice about self-isolation, Bolsonaro, never one for warmth, has taken to strolling around his followers, like the leader of a death cult silently poisoning the drinks.
One can take the time to enjoy that quasi-poetic symmetry for a man who would surely deem these things affectations. Bolsonaro started spreading praise for torture and other such less corpereal foulnesses on the Brazilian Congress, and now, like a grotesque over the top fantasy perverse king, spreads a very literal deadly illness amongst his own people.
At the moment of writing, Brazil has not yet lost control of the infection. The country has about 667 deaths, which does not seem like alarming numbers in a country of 209 million, although these numbers rise all the time. It is hard to express the extent of the virus’ danger, even without the president working against it. There is a certain cynicism to the Brazilian character. The country faces epidemics every other year – dengue fever, yellow fever and others – and life goes on; people strain to believe that this will be particularly different from the many tragedies that make the average life in Brazil.
This nonchalant attitude doesn’t work in these circumstances. Yes, it is true the death totals are still low, but the country is far behind others in testing, which is to say many cases and deaths are going unreported (and some will not be reported at all – if nobody requests an autopsy, the death will be filed as “pneumonia”). In any case, coronavirus is not an average plague of the season; it instead compounds all other Brazilian tragedies.
The country’s healthcare system simply does not have the capacity to withstand the increase of critical cases that will come from a fully unleashed epidemic. The country’s Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, has said the system is expected to “collapse” in early April without social distancing measures, though, fear not, emergency steps would kick in to expand its life until May. Privately, Mandetta is said to have told Bolsonaro of “the worst case scenario…the army will have to come in carrying corpses bags”, much to his boss’ contempt. Mandetta and Bolsonaro have publicly clashed, with the president threatening to fire the minister many times and replace him with a more pliable, anti-quarantine politician.
The other issue is that advice on social isolation is not adequate for the country’s conditions. While middle classes and upper classes can self-isolate to an extent, setting up home office conditions for their work, the majority of the Brazilian population is not in that demographic. The Bolsonaro government had already cut welfare and made the Brazilian state much smaller, thanks to literal Chicago Boy Paulo Guedes, the all-powerful Minister of Finance.
Without incentives to stay home, the Brazilian population will do what it always does, and go out to work. The lower class self-employed will become ill and infect their loved ones, even those who don’t believe the president’s words that “the recession will kill more people than the virus”. It is particularly cruel in the case of maids, a hugely important profession among poor women in Brazil: entering the homes of their rich and world travelled counterparts, they might contract Coronavirus and agonize for weeks, only to receive no sick pay from their bosses.
Bolsonaro’s preferred strategy, a sort of mix of Boris Johnson’s old “herd immunity” point and sociopathy, would involve isolating only risk groups, allowing others to go around with their lives simply cannot happen either. In overly populous favelas, families share small cramped houses and rooms; they cannot simply avoid each other. Older Brazilians also often work themselves or take care of younger children, especially at a time where schools have shut down. Without proper lockdown being enforced, children will bring the virus home to their grandparents; the president of Brazil, knowingly or not, wants the young to become a weapon against the old in their own families.
This is no end to the potential consequences. It’s easy to forget, but Brazil is a large country, and that implies many specific issues and relating to many specific populations. Take the frequently terrorized indigenous population, already at risk because of the new government’s reckless environmental policy of giving illegal loggers and cattlers permission to go into their protected areas; many fear that the coming of a new virus will totally devastate indigenous cultures. There are estimated to be around one hundred thousand homeless people in Brazil, who have no protection,are often facing other issues such as addiction, and are naturally afraid of Brazilian authorities, for obvious reasons. What of prisoners in overcrowded, moldy facilities, already dealing with illnesses such hepatitis and others easily spread infections?
At every turn, there will be new examples. Covid-19 exposes how ready a society is to preserve its most vulnerable. In most countries, the answer is not very well. In Brazil, which has spent the past five years trying to crush its weak, the stage is set for a massacre.
What then comes next? Bolsonaro seems to have badly misjudged the public mood, thinking he could spoil for a fight. Instead, he has become more isolated than ever: state governors have gone into war with the president. These are not exclusively Workers Party or wider left politicians, and even include some quite right wing ones who had surfed a pro-Bolsonaro wave in the 2018 elections. Even some of his own supporters have turned on him; sustained protests – panelaços – have happened almost every day in both upper class and poor neighbourhoods.
The fight between people who take the virus seriously and not has in many ways fast tracked the expected deterioration of the cabinet. Men such as prissy former judge Sergio Moro or said to be enlightened tyrant vice president Hamilton Mourão find themselves having to counter brief the president on a daily basis. Bolsonaro’s campaign was the child of a marriage between the immoral lovers of the dictatorship and the amoral lovers of free market ideology who loathed the Workers Party’s left-ish Third Way approach. With the economy set to go into freefall and the utter shame and embarrassment of the Brazilian response abroad, these forces start to fray; it is one thing for Moro to allow policemen to kill at the slightest provocation. It is another, all together, to take philosopher’s Olavo de Carvalho’s words at face value and call the virus an unimportant Chinese hoax; it is one thing to endorse the torture of leftist students in the 1960s, but the blood doesn’t wash quite as handily when they are dying today.
Outside too, strange alliances begin to form. People such as stalwart leftist Marcelo Freixo and the many right wing and “centrão” – a term for the amorphous mass of non-ideological hitch-a-riders- managed to force Bolsonaro’s hand in making him accept an emergencial wage of R$600 for poorer Brazilians – a small amount, but that allows to tackle hunger, the most urgent of concerns.
While coronavirus has made all predictions about the future an amorphous mist where all things are both possible and unlikely, Brazil feels increasingly able to simply slide into the surreal. Will the health minister be fired, and replaced by the anti-science minister? Will Bolsonaro face a coup from the uncomfortable military men around him? Will he be impeached, having completely lost power in Congress and the Senate? Will he reaffirm his authoritarianism, using his loyal men in the police forces to overthrow governors, forcing lockdown to end? Every option seems, in itself, to be a little piece of hell.
The basics of this crisis are, on some level, universal to all countries: the massive uncertainties about politics, economy and all things in between, including personal relations, everyday problems and uncountable small things. But Brazil is unusual in that its ruler believes that this crisis is not meant to be stopped, but aggravated; as news of mass graves in Sao Paulo swirl around whatsapp groups, as cases are expected to explode in the next weeks, as Brazilians choose between illness or starvation the president lies, cheats and outright infects the people. Bolsonaro is no longer a theoretical evil, something which might kill you one day; judgement has come at last.
Supposing that something happens to stop this – that Bolsonaro backtracks, decides to follow recommendations, that his bravado subsides, that the health system withstands the cases, that other politicians and federal judges step up where Bolsonaro could not, this will not be the end. Even if, basically, a miracle should happen, the feeling remains that this is only the beginning. Something else, some other time is bound to get Brazilians; there should be some kind of cosmic punishment for choosing Bolsonaro, or perhaps he is himself the punishment.
In the meantime, the frog boils.