The global epicentre for the coronavirus has shifted from China to Italy to the United States, as the disease has developed roughly over the last six months. However, now it has a new victim in its sights: Brazil.
The South American nation is home to an estimated 210 million people, making it the sixth biggest country in the world by population, and it is also the fifth largest by landmass. However, Brazil is also an incredibly unequal society, with the 10th highest Gini coefficient (0.539) in the world. In 2017, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics found that almost 55 million (26.5%) of Brazilians live on less than $5.50 a day, which is in accordance with the World Bank’s criteria for poverty.
And now, only the United States and Russia have more cases of coronavirus than Brazil’s 271,885, according to Johns Hopkins University. And what’s more concerning is that Brazil has only conducted 3,462 tests per one million of their population, meaning that it’s incredibly likely that those statistics are a lot higher. To put it into perspective, Spain has tested 64,977 per one million and the United States has tested 38,229.
Now you may catch yourself saying that it’s unfair to compare developed nations like Spain and the US to a third world country like Brazil, and you would be right. But this is exactly the point.
We have yet to see exactly how bad the coronavirus outbreak can get in areas of extreme poverty. And with 11.4 million Brazilians living in slums, known commonly as favelas, in Rio de Janeiro alone (23-24% of the city’s population), we’re about to see how it spreads when COVID-19 is exposed to a singular housing units that play home to several families. And then there’s the fact that roughly 30% of Rio’s population is not connected to a formal sanitation system, which encompasses not only some of Rio’s favelas but also some of the city’s wealthier neighbourhoods.
So why is Brazil the first poor nation to be hit so hard by COVID-19? Well, the answer is a little more nuanced, but the primary factor is their president, Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro is perhaps the only world leader that’s truly comparable to Donald Trump.
Until recently, he refused to wear a face mask, and while the rest of the world is debating when the right time to come out of lockdown is, Bolsonaro has actually joined in on the anti-lockdown protests. And let’s be mindful that, unlike Sweden, they certainly don’t have the healthcare system to support a massive spike in cases and subsequently acclimatise to herd immunity. Like Trump, Bolsonaro is also endorsing chloroquine as a treatment for coronavirus infected patients, meaning that Brazilian doctors will be treating the patients that they do have the capacity to take care of with a potentially dangerous pharmaceutical that caused 11 patients to die just six days into a clinical trial.
Bolsonaro has also been a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage, secularism and has even defended the Brazilian military regime. In a discussion about his opposition to immigration, he once referred to Africa, Haiti and the Middle East as “the scum of humanity”. He rejects the idea of funding reservations, NGOs or social movements and wants to give a gun to every Brazilian household. He is about as far-right and anti-science a political leader as you can imagine.
And, right now, Brazil is in serious trouble. Yesterday, they set a new personal record for daily infections, with 1,179 new cases of coronavirus. And perhaps the most shuddering story to emerge out of Brazil is that of the biggest city in the Amazon rainforest, Manaus, whose coronavirus death toll has been rising so fast that they are now resorting to using mass graves to bury their dead.
Two health ministers have already resigned their position under Bolsonaro’s administration since the coronavirus outbreak began. There’s no telling where Brazil is going with regards to the coronavirus and whatever data does exist in a country whose people are incredibly hard to keep track of, the chances are that Bolsonaro will be dismissing it anyways. So when it comes down to the truly destructive consequences of the coronavirus, we may only have seen the tip of the iceberg so far.
Brazil’s story is still developing, but could turn into a terrible nightmare. And, with most of Africa still relatively unaffected by the coronavirus, we may need to start paying attention, so that we don’t end up making the same mistakes. Brazil’s story may simply be the opening chapter to an excruciating tale for poor, vulnerable countries all over the world.