The Pandemic Can Overturn Politics in Latin America

By Mario Osava (IPS)

Brazilians protested with pots and pans against president Jair Bolsonaro.

HAVANA TIMES – “Bolsonaro is finished”, read luminous signs during the kitchen-pan-banging protest against the Brazilian president, reflecting what an immigrant had previously said to his face, after introducing himself into the group of fans who usually cheer for him every morning at the entrance of the presidential headquarters in the country’s capital.

The political death sentence is for now only a wish of opposition protesters, who expressed themselves on Wednesday night, but it reflects a picture of deterioration in the credibility of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, which may be terminal.

His denialist attitude towards the coronavirus pandemic was perhaps the last straw in the accumulation of undemocratic gestures: ineptitude, aggressions, lies and disappointments that he has starred in since his inauguration on January 1, 2019.

The social impact of the health crisis will be so brutal that, for different or similar reasons, it may also threaten the survival of other rulers in Latin America, especially those already experiencing a deep crisis, such as those of Chile and Venezuela.

Despite the four deaths and 428 Brazilians infected as of March 18th – including two ministers and the president of the senate David Alcolumbre, and a global economic recession considered inevitable with a strong reflection in Brazil, Bolsonaro continues to attribute everything to “hysteria “caused by the major news media.

He previously said that the new coronavirus and its disease covid-19, are a “fantasy”. Then he recognized the pandemic yet considered it “oversized”.

Almost all South American countries are with closed borders, canceled flights, closed schools, commerce, companies and suspended shows. The population being orientated or forced to stay at home and avoid contamination – is a new reality from which Bolsonaro is isolated – for now.

Chile decreed the ‘State of National Catastrophe’, which authorizes the government to adopt exceptional measures to face the health crisis.

“With a public health system that serves more than 70 percent of the population, Chile successfully faced previous epidemics, such as cholera and the H1N1 outbreak” (swine flu), recalled Valeria Prado, professor at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Chile.

But the country has been experiencing a political crisis since October that weakened the government. Prolonged and massive protests forced right-wing President Sebastián Piñera to accept a constitutional process, and his popularity fell to 6 percent in January, according to a survey by the ‘Center for Political Studies’.

“Although the majority of the population is understanding the gravity of the situation, this is mixed with the social protest and on March 8th, for example, a massive march of women was held in Santiago, when the virus was already circulating in Chile,” the also former secretary general of the Pan American Society of Infectious Diseases told IPS.

The public and private systems are of good technical quality and hold more hospital beds, respirators for intensive care units, and laboratories for the diagnosis of covid-19 are being implemented.

“This pandemic is an opportunity for the government to show positive leadership, although it is clear that it represents a great challenge for the Chilean health system and will have a serious economic impact,” the infectologist evaluated.

“In my opinion, appropriate measures are being taken, but the population also has a great responsibility to abide by social isolation and follow the instructions of the authorities, human behavior influences the spread of the epidemic,” he concluded.

The big problem in Latin America, is that some measures, such as the advancement of annual bonuses, salary payments, discounts or postponement of taxes and credits – can mitigate the economic and social effects, but only in the formal sector of the economy.

The Brazilian government announced several initiatives that add up to the equivalent of about US $30 billion.

But in the region, as the International Labor Organization (ILO) office for Latin America pointed out on March 18, more than 52 percent of its active population is employed in the informal sector, which rises by 10 points among the youth, so the assistance responses do not reach them or do so weakly.

This population of the informal sector will be the most affected by the economic paralysis expected for some months, as they do not have access to social protection, already much lower than that of the industrial Northern countries.

The Brazilian government, alerted this gap in its first measures, promised to donate 200 Reais (US $40) a month – for three months, to those in the informal sector estimated at between 15 and 20 million street vendors, service providers and domestic workers.

It is an insufficient amount to avoid a crisis that tends to become generalized in the Latin American countries as the coronavirus spreads among its populations.

The result is governments tightrope walking, independent of whether they are on the right, center or the left.

How will unpopular leaders like Piñera resist, who will also probably have to postpone the plebiscite on April 26th that would decide on the drafting of a new Constitution in Chile?

What about the countries that already suffer from dramatic poverty? Venezuela is the emblematic case with its economic collapse that caused the emigration of almost five million people, including 25,000 to 30,000 doctors.

Electricity and water supply failures affected between 63 and 78 percent of Venezuelan hospitals respectively in 2019, according to a survey by the organization ‘Doctors for Health’ in 40 large state health centers.

The shortage of supplies and essential drugs is another sore. There are only 85 beds with mechanical ventilation for critically ill patients, while the virus detection test is minimal. What will happen with a covid-19 epidemic in this country and what impact will it have for the ruler Nicolas Maduro?

The coronavirus initially attacked the wealthy, that is, international travelers and their relatives. Its explosion has to occur when it reaches the “favelas”, the name given to crowded, deprived and unhealthy neighborhoods which facilitate contamination and whose inhabitants lack the conditions to take care of themselves.

Governments like that of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, which ignores the international protocol that dictates quarantines, social isolation and suspension of massive activities, run the risk of paying for the tragic effects.

In Brazil, President Bolsonaro is in fact already suffering the damage of his own obscurantism.

The banging of the pots in many Brazilian cities on the night of March 18th, with the cries of “Bolsonaro Out!” recalled the cacerolazos (pot banging protests) that in 2015 started the protests which prompted the removal of former President Dilma Rousseff a year later.

In some buildings in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, signs were highlighted that indicated in lights that the power of the current president, elected in October 2018, was extinct.

The unidentified, allegedly Haitian immigrant, also used the expression “Bolsonaro is finished” two days before saying directly to the president – in Portuguese with an accent: “You are no longer president, you have to resign,” in a video that circulated profusely on social networks.

The protester had the audacity to accuse Bolsonaro of “spreading the virus and killing Brazilians”, before being silenced by screams from the Bolsonaro fanatics who meet and cheer their leader almost daily in front of the Planalto Palace – the headquarters of the presidency – in Brasilia.

Bolsonaro committed “a crime against public health”, by joining the crowd that expressed support for him on Sunday the 15th in the capital, said Janaina Paschoal, the most voted deputy in 2018, with 2.06 million votes in the state from São Paulo.

An early Bolsonaro supporter and co-author of the bill to oust former president Rousseff, she declared herself “sorry” for having supported the former Army captain who now governs Brazil.

The President was suspected of having caught the coronavirus. He had returned four days earlier from a visit to Florida, in the United States, and 17 members of his party, including two ministers, suffer from covid-19.

Progressive politicians and intellectuals called for Bolsonaro to be disqualified for having encouraged rallies calling for the closure of the National Congress and the Federal Supreme Court, and for violating his own government’s guidelines regarding the coronavirus.

Bolsonaro faces the pandemic as a “power dispute”. “They want to paralyze activities to collapse the Brazilian economy and thus end my government ends,” he said in a radio interview.
[Editor’s note: On Friday afternoon Brazil became the latest nation to declare a state of emergency as the novel coronavirus continued to spread in the South American country.]

This article had the support of correspondents Humberto Márquez, from Caracas, and Orlando Milesi, from Santiago de Chile.

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