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About the Author

Jean Vilbert holds a bachelor’s and a master’s in Laws in the field of Fundamental Rights. He taught Constitutional Law and Humanities in Brazil for almost a decade and served as a judge for five years. Currently, he is a candidate in the Master’s of International Public Affairs at the La Follette School of Public Affairs (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and a Franklin Firstbrook Fellow at the Latin American, Caribbean and Iberian Studies Program (Lacis).

Has Brazil Recovered? Wait, Not so Fast…

by | Jun 17, 2021

Gui Christ, Apolo Sales and Alessandro Falco participated from Brazil in the ongoing digital exhibition,“Documenting the Impact of Covid-19 through Photography: Collective Isolation in Latin America,” sponsored by ReVista and the Art, Culture, and Film program at Harvard’s David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS.)


 

Every time I opened the newspaper recently, I encountered exciting news about Brazil, my home country. The economy grew 1.2 percent in the first quarter of 2021, returning to pre-pandemic levels. Based on these shining figures, analysts optimistically lifted their full-year forecasts. Maybe we should not go so fast, especially while Covid-19 still rages in the country.

04/20/2020. São Paulo, Brazil. Portrait of Ana Cristina da Silva at the stairs that lead to her shack at the favela of Paraisópolis.

 

Who recovered?

As one of the most affected nations by the pandemic (16.52 million cases), largely due to political mismanagement, Brazil has a plethora of problems to deal with before we can announce a full recovery. For a start, there is the political question. Right now, President Jair Bolsonaro faces a Senate inquiry over his catastrophic handling of the pandemic.

Then, the complex economic situation comes to the debate — the unevenness of the distribution of output, for instance. Even though the economy is showing signals of life, the high prices of the commodities in the global market, the same that helped the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GPD), are producing inflationary expectations, dragging prices up in the home market. Inflation skyrocketed to 6.76 percent in April 2021, the highest rate since December 2016, and well above the Central Bank’s ceiling of 5.25 percent. In plain English, now Brazilians have less money and their little money buys fewer things.

04/20/2020. São Paulo, Brazil. Portrait of Acadio Roberto José de Souza standing in a destroyed shack close to his house located at the favela of Paraisópolis.

At the same time, unemployment spiked to 14.2 percent, leaving almost 15 million jobless people in the labor force. Though these numbers are alarming by themselves, they also disguise disparities. Households at the lowest decile were the hardest hit, having lost more than 30 percent of their income. Moreover, unemployment rates can be as low as 8.2 in Brazil’s South, a richer region, while in the poorer Northeast, unemployment exceeds 17.2 percent.

Therefore, despite some positive numbers, if we ask the poor in Brazil, they will probably tell another tale — one in which a bouncing back is still far in the distance and GDP is something they heard about when looking for a job.

04/23/2020. São Paulo, Brazil. Portrait of Adriano Silva Santos at the Palmeirinha soccer court located at the favela of Paraisópolis.

 

How did we get there?

Since the coronavirus arrived in Latin America in February 2020, the Brazilian federal government refused any advice from the international community. The administration has never adopted explicitly the Sweden light-touch style, but also did not embrace the World Health Organization (WHO)’s guidance. Under the federal government’s erratic behavior, subnational powers had to undertake most measures against the pandemic. Some did well; others did not. The lack of coordination in implementing coherent policies certainly took its toll.

A report from the University of Oxford showed that by June 2020, testing in Brazil was infrequent, and staying at home for a full fortnight was exceptional, in both cases even among potentially infected people. And although the WHO’s recommendations were not being met, at that time many subnational governments were already starting to relax social distancing rules.

Thus, it should not come as a surprise that Brazil has turned into one of the world’s worst coronavirus hot spots.

Diakara, 45, a shaman of the Dessana indigenous group, collects leaves of a medicinal plant on the outskirts of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas. He uses the plant, known as saratudo, to treat tribal members with symptoms of COVID-19. Hospitals and cemeteries in the city have been overwhelmed with victims of the pandemic. With the scarcity of medicines, many indigenous people living in Manaus have relied on traditional medicine to calm the symptoms of COVID-19. According to COIAB (Coordination of Indigenous Organizations of Brazilian Amazon), more than 2642 people from 72 tribes have contracted the new COVID-19, resulting in more than 218 deaths.

 

How can we find a way out?

It may sound like a platitude, but in the grim times we are living through, there is no solution beyond the great walls of public health. As long as the spread of the coronavirus remains a threat, positive economic numbers may be a fluke or part of a rollercoaster-type curve of recovery.

The drama is that whether life is returning to normal in North America and Western Europe, and even in close neighbors — like Chile, which already has 42 percent of its population fully vaccinated plus 14 percent partially vaccinated — Brazil struggles with delays. To date, only 10 percent of Brazilians received full immunization and 11 percent got the first shot. In the meantime, the Bolsonaro administration engages in a diplomatic dispute with China, that has led to a shortage of active ingredients needed for the national production of vaccines.

Not just that, the Brazilian Supreme Court had to rule that states and municipalities are entitled to buy vaccines directly from foreign manufactures. If you are wondering why, that is because the federal government has failed to uphold its commitment to distribute supplies and the ANVISA (equivalent to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the United States) has denied authorization to purchases of “non-approved” foreign vaccines.

Do not get me wrong, as a Brazilian, I am excited about the resurging of economic activity in my country. I just think we should be wary. Now that vaccines against Covid-19 are available, the idea that life can return to normal before immunization and herd immunity is not only risky but also a sort of condescension with government omission. The administration in power has the obligation to timely secure vaccines — or step out of the way.

Safe through the Glass; Photo by Apolo Sales.

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